On the crisis of liberalism

Liberalism is a contested word. So contested, in fact, that I can't even qualify it with some catch-all phrase, like 'as it is commonly understood'. 

In fact, it is not understood at all: It's often a term of abuse in India, where it's seen as a form of retardation (hence, the coinage, in the great Indian English tradition of joined-up words, 'Libtard') while in the West, it's a lost ideal nostalgically mourned. In North America, Liberalism is often synonymous with economic justice, an activist state restraining the excesses of the market, combined with unrestrained individual choice, allowing people to live their lives as they please; in Europe, it is about a non-interventionist state and unrestrained operations of the market, with individuals permitted to do as they please as long as they don't threaten social harmony. So, the creation of a National Health Service would be considered a Liberal policy and right to abortion a great Liberal cause in America, whereas European liberals would look for free-market health care along with a ban on the Burqa. In a true Liberal spirit, perhaps, there is no agreement on what the term really means.

Except that there seems to be a consensus that Liberals are in trouble. All the disparate events, Britain's exit from Europe, the daily madness of Donald Trump, a Russia turned into a reality TV show, a saviour-Prime Minister in India, are bunched together as examples of Liberalism's existential crisis. As British trade unionists find a common platform with émigré Russian oligarchs, Indian dynasties and Clinton and Bush political families in America, something is surely in deep crisis - but what that exactly is could be hard to define. The other shorthand, interchangeably used with liberalism, for liberal-loving media is the 'post-war world order', which is a set of institutions designed to protect the American hegemony after the World War: It is not clear, however, who should really mourn its passing, when Americans themselves want to get rid of the constraints of international responsibility and throw their military and financial weight around.  

This crisis cry for liberalism is indeed more like a funeral for an enigmatic man, who congregated mourners all remember differently but whom they all want to merge in a single, common and lovable image. This really gets one to essentials, and it is an useful exercise: Out of the window goes the various pretences Liberalism gathered over the two centuries - all the big state overreaches, neo-imperial institutions and unrestrained architecture of money - particularly as the current populists pretenders keep stealing these ideas: What remains is the bare-bone Liberal idea, somewhat of American origin, that all power must be kept in check.

Liberals, who call themselves as such now, grew accustomed to love the big state. But, as an insightful liberal accurately prognosticated, power indeed corrupts. Power would eat good will for breakfast - something that well-meaning Bolsheviks found out so spectacularly - and the state power must be  kept in check. That was where the Jeffersonian genius trumped the Leninist ambition: It was not a triumph of capitalism that broke the Soviet Union, but the inherent self-correcting mechanism of curbing the state overreach! In fact, the contemporary variation of capitalism, one that hands out unaccountable power to Central Banks and justifies limiting institutional constraints for the sake of 'development', makes exactly the same mistake that various well-meaning paternalistic regimes did everywhere: Controlling the inevitable centralising tendencies is the whole point of a Liberal politics.

It is an easy lesson to forget. Our desire for material prosperity may tempt us away from the required vigilantism for independence. The decline of communities and our atomised existence may make us love low prices and lower interest rates, and stop asking questions about the big corporations and central banks that centralise power in unprecedented ways. Liberalism was not just a revolt against absolute monarchs and its shelf life did not expire with the advent of democracy. If we miss it now, we should see clearly what it stood for: That one must actively build fields of constraints for institutions to work as intended.


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