Bland Fanatics

Pankaj Mishra

  • On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present by Alan Ryan
    Penguin, 1152 pp, £14.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 14 028518 5
  • Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop
    Penguin, 448 pp, £9.99, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 14 100954 4
  • Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett
    Princeton, 496 pp, £16.95, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 16839 5
  • An Imperial Path to Modernity: Yoshino Sakuzō and a New Liberal Order in East Asia 1905-37 by Jung-Sun Ni Han
    Harvard, 244 pp, £29.95, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 674 06571 0

Visiting Africa and Asia in the 1960s, Conor Cruise O’Brien discovered that many people in former colonies were ‘sickened by the word “liberalism”’. They saw it as an ‘ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs’. O’Brien – ‘incurably liberal’ himself (at least in this early phase of his career) – was dismayed. He couldn’t understand why liberalism had come to be seen as an ‘ideology of the rich, the elevation into universal values of the codes which favoured the emergence, and favour the continuance, of capitalist society’. This seemed to him too harsh a verdict on a set of ideas and dispositions that appeared to promote democratic government, constitutionalism, the rule of law, a minimal state, property rights, self-regulating markets and the empowerment of the autonomous rational individual.

Liberal ideas in the West had emerged in a variety of political and economic settings, in both Europe and North America. They originated in the Reformation’s stress on individual responsibility, and were shaped to fit the mould of the market freedoms that capitalism would need if it was to thrive (the right to private property and free labour, freedom from state regulation and taxation). They did not seem particularly liberal to the peoples subjugated by British, French and American imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Contradictions and elisions haunted the rhetoric of liberalism from the beginning. ‘How is it,’ Samuel Johnson asked about secession-minded American colonists, ‘that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ John Stuart Mill credited India’s free-trading British overlords with benign liberal intentions towards a people self-evidently incapable of self-rule. ‘Despotism,’ he wrote, ‘is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.’ Alexis de Tocqueville, by contrast, felt no need of the ingratiating moral mask; the French colonial project in Algeria was a glorious enterprise, a vital part of French nation-building after decades of political turmoil.

It wasn’t only the entwined history of liberalism and imperialism that in the 1960s made many Asians and Africans suspect American and European liberals of being ‘false friends’. As O’Brien admitted, during the Cold War many Western liberals – such as those who were against imposing sanctions on South Africa – upheld the most illiberal forms of anti-communism. Theorists who promoted free enterprise and equal rights as a formula for prosperity that all new nations could adopt often came from countries with long histories of economic protectionism and institutionalised racism. The new postcolonial nations had their own alternatives to Western liberalism. Even non-communist countries such as India and South Korea put in place systems of government based on a mixture of central planning and market intervention. Raymond Aron, worrying about the appeal of communism in Asia in the 1950s, suggested that non-liberal policies and institutions appealed to many state-builders in Asia because it was clear to them that liberal methods in politics and economics were doomed to fail.

The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 emboldened the ‘bland fanatics of Western civilisation’, as the resolutely anti-communist Reinhold Niebuhr called them, ‘who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence’. It wasn’t too difficult for Cold War liberalism, defined and deformed by its ideological battle with communism, to reincarnate itself as neoliberalism. More than one influential Western commentator in the 1990s and early 2000s outlined the new institutional framework within which latecomers to the modern world, without the benefits of slave ownership and colonialism, could achieve the virtues of individual liberty. Thomas Friedman’s recommendations to the world’s stragglers included the ‘values of hard work, thrift, honesty, patience and tenacity’, as well as ‘export-oriented free market strategies based on privatisation of state companies, deregulation of financial markets, currency adjustments, foreign direct investment, shrinking subsidies, lowering protectionist tariff barriers, and introduction of more flexible labour laws’. The financial crisis of 2008 redirected Friedman’s attention to the manifold problems of rising inequality, debt and the shrinking middle class in the US. Liberalism is deeply implicated in the crisis, as the path to it was laid by free market ideologues who demanded more liberty and less regulation from the state as elected politicians removed all restraints on corporate greed. Unlike Edmund Fawcett, a former Economist journalist who seems aware of its crisis of credibility, Alan Ryan and Larry Siedentop continue to uphold liberalism as a universal ideology to which all political progress has been leading. ‘The only morally acceptable form of democracy’, Ryan writes, is ‘liberal democracy’, and liberalism gives ‘the ordinary person a degree of intellectual, spiritual and occupational freedom the ancient world never dreamed of’. Siedentop is convinced that ‘we in the West’ must ‘shape the conversation of mankind’, but that we must first understand ‘the moral depth of our own tradition’.

The suspicion that Ryan and Siedentop are working with anachronistic assumptions – derived from a sanguine 19th-century philosophy of history and progress – is deepened by their failure even to mention the current challengers in the West to liberalism and liberal democracy: the racist Republican right in America and quasi-fascist movements across Western Europe. The political landscape elsewhere, from Xi Jinping’s China to Evo Morales’s Bolivia, from Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to Thailand’s monarchy-backed military despotism, features a variety of political forms, social movements and political mobilisations, and looks further from Western liberalism than ever. Representative democracy and global capitalism were supposed to work hand in hand to usher barbarian peoples into a future of prosperity and stability, but have turned out to be deeply antagonistic to each other even in India, which Western liberal democrats had long cherished as their most diligent apprentice in the East.

A universal bellicosity confirms Santayana’s suspicion that ‘liberalism has merely cleared a field in which every soul and every corporate interest may fight with every other for domination.’ Siedentop acknowledges this reality only in his assertion that ‘we are in a competition of beliefs’ with Chinese-style capitalism and Islam, which ‘offends some of our deepest intuitions’. This is ‘a strange and disturbing moment in Western history’, but only because Europeans ‘have lost touch with their own moral intuitions’. Americans understand that ‘liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity,’ but Europeans don’t, with potentially ruinous consequences: Muslims, for instance, are ‘frequently encouraged to look forward to replacing the laws of the nation state with sharia “law”’, when secularism, ‘Europe’s noblest achievement’, ‘should be its primary contribution to the creation of a world order’.

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