Liberalism is an idea with a history of close to five centuries. It got institutionalised in the 18th century through two historic incidents – making of the American Constitution in 1788 and the French Revolution in 1789. These two historical incidents which happened around the same time but 6000 km apart, led to the evolution of liberal democracies in the west in the last two centuries. Liberal ideas like freedom, equality, human rights and welfarism have inspired many nations in the world to emerge as liberal democracies in the last century. India too is one among them. The 20th century began with dictatorships and world wars but ended with greater democratisation. By the time the 20th century ended, the world had the highest number of democratic governments.
The three most significant political ideas that the west has contributed in the last few centuries are liberalism, conservatism and communism. Of the three, liberal ideals have survived the longest period of time. The Marxian idea of communism met its Waterloo in the last century. When the collapse of communism happened towards the end of the last century, and the conservative ideas of religion, morals and social structures too were sufficiently vilified with enormous zeal, the liberal elite in the west started dreaming of the unassailability of their liberal bandwagon. Some of them even pronounced the ‘end of history’. Western liberalism was declared as the singular panacea for mankind’s future.
But come 21st century, the story turned out to be something else. The liberal democratic order is witnessing popular revolts against the establishment today. Foundations of the liberal order are found wobbling precariously. The neo-liberal elite, the very people who championed liberalism all the while, are today viewing it as an anathema. Democracies, once regarded as the bastions of liberal idealism, are today being branded as illiberal, producing populist authoritarians and dictatorial demagogues.
Why are liberals angry? Is liberalism dying? In an intensely thought-provoking book titled “Why Liberalism Failed”, Patrick J. Deneen, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and a renowned political philosopher, raises and analyses this important question. The classical liberalism as conceived some five hundred years ago was premised upon minimum government and the consequent freedom of the individual. Such core liberal ideas are not new to non-western societies like India either. Dignity and liberty of the individual were regarded as Sacrum Finem – sacred goal by ancient Indian classical thought too. Just as liberal ideas in India owed their existence and rise to its religion, morals and corresponding institutions, western liberalism too benefitted from its philosophers and religions like Christianity. In that sense, classical liberalism was a non-partisan enterprise.
Deneen argues in his book that the classical ideas of liberty and liberalism got corrupted by the overzealous liberal elites over the last two centuries resulting in grave distortions. “At its inception, liberalism promised to displace an old aristocracy in the name of liberty; yet as it eliminates every vestige of an old order the heirs regard its replacement as a new, perhaps even more pernicious, kind of aristocracy”, he decries. Instead of being the vehicles of liberal order for their citizens, liberal governments are increasingly seen by people as distant and unresponsive entities captured by a new, wealthy and powerful aristocracy, which Deneen calls as ‘liberalocracy’. This class of neo-liberals, who captured governing institutions in liberal democracies, have converted them into dens of individualism and class interests to the detriment of large masses. They released forces that became ungovernable.
These neo-liberal vagaries came to be challenged by the rise of nationalism in several countries in recent times. Liberals were taken aback by the rise of forces whom they regarded as despots, demagogues and dictators. The liberal response was to question the ‘democratic competence’ of the citizens and brand democracies themselves as illiberal and undesirable. John Stuart Mill became suddenly relevant to proclaim that ‘persons of genius’ need to become the new ruling class as against the democratic principle of the ‘persons of popular mandate’. Deneen argues that the only option to escape from these impositions by the neo-liberals is liberation from liberalism itself. Every idea has a shelf life. Deneen believes that liberalism too has reached its tether’s end, not because its classical ideas were bad but because its neo-liberal practitioners were overzealous.
But what after liberalism? Deneen raises this important question to alert us that the world should resist the impulse of returning to ‘pre-liberal’ era or relapsing into a ‘potentially cruel authoritarian regime’. He calls upon the thinking world to get free from ideologies and look for a pragmatic alternative that acknowledges liberalism’s achievements and explores a ‘better theory of politics and society’ for a post-liberal world order.
Some books give the reader inexplicable inner happiness. They are serious works, exuding ideas like the gushing water from a mountain top. You will be engrossed in the richness and profundity of those ideas so deeply that they transport you into a different future. Deneen’s is one such book that offers a radical critique of the neo-liberal distortions of the liberal world order and offers a vitally important understanding of the crisis that the politics in the west is engulfed with today.
Read if a discourse on contemporary political philosophy interests you.
(The review was originally carried by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on October 28, 2020.)