Liberalism at the crossroads?


‘Individual only’ is losing significance in the age of information connectivity


Political liberalism was against the oppression of state hence it was against the collective approach. Liberals held that any official restraint placed on an individual’s liberty had to be both justified and minimal


The world is still in shock after the entry of President Trump in the White House. Normally when election process is completed, electronic media and press start image building of the newly elected president. This is done by printing ‘selected and edited’ photos and stories about his personal life, focusing on his leadership qualities. But Trump was not lucky on this account and did not get any favour from the media, particularly from liberal newspapers, after his election. These expressed doubts about Trump’s ability to meet internal and external challenges. His actions, conduct, statements and selection of team remain under scrutiny and criticism. Human and gender rights activists, environmentalists, pacifists and liberal intellectuals were leading campaigners. Many in the liberal’s camp blamed the electoral system which elected Trump as president. Simultaneously a hype was created about Russian involvement in election process. Many liberal intellectuals have been criticising the process of determination of the majority opinion and some even the wisdom of majority rule. Very few are ready to have appraisal of the strategy adopted and philosophy preached by them during the election campaign.

It will be difficult for them to understand the change in the hearts and minds of the majority, though may be it too lean, who elected a person who is defying long established values cherished by the middle class. But the question posed is how he succeeded to rally around him masses when gurus and the elite of his own party were not supportive? The emerging international political trends demand an impartial analysis of his victory because the wind of change is not ending in the US but threatening many European countries also.

When the Soviet Union collapsed it was not just the fall of a country but it was the downfall of an ideology. I asked many political activists in the west and in Pakistan that what will be the next ideological movement which will enchant the youth. That is because in every epoch or age enlightened persons are committed to some ideological movement based on a socio-political philosophy. The youth motivated by such movement dedicate their whole life to achieve the dreams envisioned by such philosophy. But there was no answer. Everyone at that time was convinced by the idea of ‘the end of history’ believing that new era will last forever.

No one can deny that in the last century social democracy and socialism were ideological movements to which men and women of all continents at some stage of life were attracted. These became beacons of hope for idealists to follow the mirage of equality, fraternity and independence. But after rejection of socialist ideology, there was no new dream for youth. So many politically conscious persons went to religious or national extremism. Others opted to join social welfare programs and the movements for rights. NGOs local and international, provided best opportunities to them and offered careers, tours, international interaction and finances. The liberal philosophy motivated them to accept the new way of life.

Political liberalism was against the oppression of state hence it was against the collective approach. Liberals held that any official restraint placed on an individual’s liberty had to be both justified and minimal. They were against the Church also, and therefore argued for political liberties, choice, individual rights and individual actions and liberties. During the Cold War liberals were therefore on the forefront of democratic movements against totalitarian states. For the demands of civil rights, democracy and individual freedom, everyone rallied around liberalism even in Eastern Europe. But after the fall of communism when liberalism embraced neoliberalism a contradiction emerged. Neoliberalism was against any intervention of government in business but wanted forceful implementation of austerity, privatisation, global access to capital and suppression of labour unions by the government. Enlightened people, scholars and intellectuals on the side of liberalism, turned apolitical hoping neoliberalism and democracy would deliver all benefits. Recently Kenan Malik in The Guardian has argued that “With the end of the Cold War, many liberals expected the tension between liberalism and democracy to be resolved. Liberal institutions, they imagined, could concentrate on governance and the enactment of the ‘right’ policies while, freed from dreams of socialism, the masses could simply become the electorate, exercising their democratic right at elections and enjoying the benefits of technocratically shaped governments.” In other words liberalism became a party to status quo.

It is an irony that liberals who always raised voices for changes and improvements are not associated with the status quo and support of the elite. In contrast now the rightist parties have emerged as banner holders of social and collective rights like employment, etc. The slogans of opposition to immigration and restrictions on import, in fact, are being raised to assure the native populations that more jobs will be available to them, though may be at the cost of some other people.

Many economists and politicians like Brzezinski, Paul Mason and Stiglitz are indicating the fault lines in USA like aged physical infrastructure, widening inequality and transfer of industrial production to other countries. But majority of liberals still blaming uneducated masses who voted for Trump, searching faults in the electoral system or gathering evidence of Russian’s manipulation. The sooner they learn that liberalism which was evolved around the nucleus of “individual only” is losing significance in the age of information connectivity the better. The new man and woman of post-socialism age though have not found any ideology but they are showing their resentment against the status quo either voting in the elections or ‘Dharnas’ at Tahrir Square and other places.

Liberals will definitely have the belief that they will again prevail when Trump will fail in fulfilling his promises. But the finance and party’s election machinery only help in streaming popular thinking but it is not final determinant of elections. A wave in the minds of general public shifts the non-committed voters to give a majority to any party. Liberals therefore now have to think about the need of reorientation of the ideology of liberalism. Instead of following a narrow lane approach and targeting some groups or communities, it shall shed its aversion to collective action and become part of broad political currents. One has to ponder whether by accepting neoliberalism as a new partner he or she has not lost the sights of goals set by social democratic struggle. This was the struggle which achieved basic human rights i.e. women voting, universal suffrage, equal rights of employment, etc. The social democratic struggle believed in the collective political action and not on alienated actions targeting specific groups or a particular agenda. The time has come to think again for a collective political action to change ‘the system’ and in such a struggle the ‘classical’ liberal values must be at the centre stage while demanding collective benefits. May be this new thinking rally youth again and provide a hope and dream.