I HAVE not been a liberal all of my adult life. As a student, I did not even know of the real differences between liberals and conservatives, beyond superficial lifestyle ones. But my early views were unconsciously conservative, unsurprising for youngsters growing up in middle-class Pakistan. However, then things changed. I know when but not how and why. Humans still have little control over or understanding of such changes. But I got bored with an attractive business career and felt strangely attracted to social causes, especially in Africa.
Studying at Berkeley and working for principled leftist INGOs across 50-plus countries in Africa and Asia — with pygmies in war-ravaged Congo’s tropical jungles, parched pastoralists in the Sahel and Horn of Africa and war victims in Darfur — gradually helped me shed my conservatism. I was taught passion for social justice not in Pakistani schools or mosques but in Berkeley and leftist NGOs.
Today, as I recall my conservatism, I have not an iota of doubt about liberalism’s edge. It represents the peak of human thinking’s evolution since eternity. All humans deserve respect, beyond race, religion and ethnicity. Xenophobia and racism are bad. Politics must be democratic, economics equitable.
For me, these liberal ideas are so clearly true there is not even a need for debate. This is what all great religions preached but is not what their adherents always follow today. So, it puzzles me that liberalism is yet not the dominant intellectual force globally. More worryingly, it is in retreat. The spread of extremism across the Muslim arc, Modi’s rise in India, the far right’s spread in Europe, the corporatisation of Chinese communism, and finally Trump’s election all show liberalism’s retreat. Why is liberalism failing to ignite imagination despite its obvious merits and the demerits of its challengers? Is liberalism in terminal decline?
Why is liberalism failing to ignite imagination?
January will see the world’s two biggest democracies with openly racist and autocratic rulers, their electoral success driven by instigating xenophobia and hatred during economic woes. Given its emphasis on economic equity, liberalism should have been the obvious refuge for such distressed voters. Yet, they chose racist men who explained their woes using xenophobia. Illiteracy and poverty partially explain the bad choice in India. But what is the excuse for voters in the world’s richest state? The crude values and limited intellect that drove people to see a crooked and coarse billionaire as a champion of the working class leave a liberal mind aghast. Gloom, shock, disgust, anger and bemusement, individually or even collectively, seem inadequate emotional responses to Trump’s victory.
But more critical is an intellectual response that explains Trump’s rise, liberalism’s failure and a way forward for it. Liberalism reached a peak in the 1960s with a consensus on welfare capitalism, democratic politics and multiculturalism in Europe and the US after the horrors of the Second World War that were driven by extreme economic, political and social conservatism.
But by the 1970s, big capital got fed up with this consensus as it favoured labour over capital. This led to Reagan’s and Thatcher’s rise who replaced economic liberalism with economic neoliberalism — the former not even distantly related to the latter despite similar names. Liberals like Clinton and Blair responded by making peace with big capital and becoming centrists. Bush Jr demolished global political liberalism by institutionalising US unilateralism.
This left only social liberalism intact, which was furthered by Obama’s win. Even moderate conservatives adhered to it. Yet, grass-roots, right-wing activists kept undermining it by giving working-class whites an ethnic logic for their economic woes by blaming minorities and foreigners. In reality, their woes require class-based logic since they came from the neoliberalism their fellow upper-class whites gave. But such is the power of primordial drives that ethnic logics appeal to many even in educated societies. So, US white working classes became sold their tormentors are minorities, not upper-class whites. This is how, despite being a minority, capitalists perpetuate their hold on democracy.
Trump exploited decades of this grass-roots work by making xenophobia and sexism key planks of his campaign. He became the first to win by shamelessly nationalising such ideas and thus dealt a blow to social liberalism. Democrats gave the first black president, Republicans the first billionaire one. Thus, three extreme Republican presidents — Reagan, Bush Jr and Trump — have badly dented economic, political and social liberalism respectively, Trump even before taking oath.
Can liberalism recover? Trump’s victory may popularise vulgar social illiberalism among conservatives in campaigns globally and unleash major social, economic and political conservative restructuring. Unluckily, liberals are bereft of ideas and personalities to counter it. Only fresh ideas and faces can encounter the looming alt-conservative onslaught.
The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn November 22nd, 2016