It is time to reorient liberalism to its communitarian roots
Liberalism is in crisis in the world today. The wave of populist politics sweeping across continents is the most visible manifestation of widespread disenchantment with liberal establishments. The expression of this disenchantment is not pretty — in the anything-goes world of social media, vile abuse and name calling of liberals is routine. However, cut through the trolling and a genuine fault line in liberal thought emerges as a real reason for the crisis — the continued desertion by liberals themselves of the common good in favour of a dogmatic assertion of individual rights.
Helena Rosenblatt, in her wonderful new book, The Lost History of Liberalism, tells us that this was not always the case. Liberals, from Cicero to Dewey, understood their creed as articulating a theory of the common good, promoting generosity, equality and a sense of collective belonging. They were moralists stressing on duties and rights, both of which were instrumental in this enterprise.
It was only after the Second World War that liberalism took an individualistic, rights-centric, American turn. The big states of Germany and Italy had produced fascism. Liberalism, “the dreaded L-word” in Ronald Reagan’s view, was held responsible for making such fascism possible. Under attack from American conservatives, the best way of reclaiming liberalism as an anti-totalitarian philosophy entailed reorienting the focus away from the collective to the individual. John Locke and John Stuart Mill, with their emphasis on freedoms, became poster boys. Significant in such reorientation were battles over a woman’s right to abort, a couple’s right to use contraception and the right of a homosexual person to choose a partner of the same sex. Liberalism became, at its core, as Rosenblatt writes, “an individualist, if not selfish, philosophy”.
This new, post-war Americanised liberalism with its marquee issues, had no intellectual or traditional roots in India. The issues themselves were alien in an Indian context. Abortion and contraception were free from doctrinaire Catholic prejudice. Homosexuality was recognised, before the onset of Victorian morality, as ordinary. Yet, the philosophy of individual rights that underpinned such issues in America wormed its way into newly independent India through its English-speaking intelligentsia.
It is precisely this philosophy that persists in large sections of the Indian liberal establishment today. Take the flashpoint in Sabarimala. Upholding an individual’s right to pray in a religious place of her choice is neither sanctioned by the Constitution nor the rulebook of most religious institutions. Such a view fails to grapple with autonomy for communities. It is also cavalier about the need for societal harmony.
Again, take the criticism of Aadhaar based on the right to privacy. While the values privacy protects — autonomy, liberty and dignity — are undoubtedly fundamental for the common good, the single-minded incantation of privacy overlooks the practical need for hassle-free living. Individuals want privacy, but they also want to prevent pilferage of their ration entitlements, seamless linking of services and be spared of paying bribes to middlemen. Aadhaar, as the Supreme Court recognised, makes all these more possible than other existing methods of identification.
Factoring in all these voices from the ground ought to have been core to any authentic understanding of liberalism. But borrowing a foreign understanding rather than coming up with a well thought-out original one appears to have won the day. This might be an observation that applies as much to the liberal establishment today as it does to the one that conceptualised the Constitution of India. After all, if truth be bluntly told, the Constitution is a smart mix-and-match of global best practices force-fitted into perceived Indian realities.
It was around the time of the drafting of the Indian Constitution that liberalism took this American turn, taking India and the rest of the world in its wake. The pressures that forced this turn were not solely external, but also an internal recognition that liberalism was, in Hannah Arendt’s words, the “spawn from hell” that had given rise to Nazism. The turn has now run its course. Liberalism is yet again a spawn from hell, this time, unwittingly giving rise to destructive populism and an uncivil public sphere.
This provides an ideal juncture to reorient liberalism to its communitarian roots. India, home to one-sixth of the world’s population, with a societal ethos that stresses duties over rights, the collective over the individual, and with a deep understanding of the self that transcends materiality, would be well placed to lead this reorientation. That may not be enough to stop the trolling but at least Indian liberals would be giving the trolls and the world a piece of their own, as opposed to somebody else’s, mind.
Arghya Sengupta is research director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy
The views expressed are personal