22 June, 2024


Liberalism: The History Of A Paradox

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The recent spate of riots and indiscriminate acts of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia has raised alarm everywhere. What these riots suggest is that the alternative right has gained the upper hand, at least nominally, and that those in charge are reluctant to call a spade a spade. They are all copping out, so commentators point out. Nazism has obviously held sway in parts of the West where white middle-class workers feel upended by immigrants and African-Americans who are considered to be either living off the welfare system or living on the government. Those who are calling them out, incidentally, are white middle class liberals.

In the United States of America these white middle class liberals are identified as leftists, socialists, pinkos, or Commies by white middle class conservatives. John Maynard Keynes is a socialist in their books, as are the two other Johns, Galbraith and Kennedy. This confusion of ideologies is also a confusion of cultures, and it’s rooted in part at least in the West’s casual dismissal of socialism as doctrines that no longer hold sway in the world. It’s more or less a reflection of the liberal’s role in the West and (to a certain extent) in the East, rather self-contradictory as it has been.

Liberalism is the most enduring tribute to the West’s intellectual and academic presence in the contemporary world. Historically it emerged as a force that sought to do away with monarchs and despots (no matter how “enlightened” they were). Theoretically at least, liberals were against conflating the state and religion. They were the inevitable result of the Age of Enlightenment, where a political culture that differentiated between an absolute ruler and a horde of lords, serfs, and vassals was replaced by one that differentiated between representatives and voters. It was primarily a doctrine of ethical individualism, which idealised a system of representative democracy. Its proponents found their pivot with John Locke.

Locke was the father of the movement that culminated with the founding of the United States of America and the two documents that birthed it, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. His ideas were premised on private property conceived of as a reality that necessitated, not absolute monarchs holding a monopoly over power in a given territory, but universally agreed upon rules and principles which would ensure a flourishing democracy. In effect, he atomised the notion of rights as we know it today, rooting it in the individual and not a collective.

The problem is that this atomised notion of rights was in turn rooted in a variant of individualism that derived its historical and political relevance from a predominantly White Anglo Saxon and bourgeois polity. What was so interesting about this culture of liberalism that ran riot in the 18th and 19th centuries was that it was sustained by the centuries that led to them: the 15th, 16th, and 17th, which contained the seeds of fanaticism, intolerance, and bigotry that would be unleashed later on.

When Professor Nalin de Silva contended that Martin Luther was no different to the Catholic Church he railed against, he was not exhibiting a paranoid distaste for the West, but pointing out that the West has one way of seeing. De Silva them contended that every –ism that adorned history, from capitalism to Protestantism to Marxism to (yes) liberalism, could be traced to their atomised perception of reality. The liberalism of the 20th century tried to reconcile the fundamental dichotomy which resulted from this, between its privileging of individual dignity and its similarities with the –isms from the preceding centuries it claimed to act against, and succeeded only in part.

The tragedy of Western liberalism then is that it congealed eventually to its own antithesis. Its profusion in the 20th century was followed by its deterioration (a phenomenon which, perhaps, won’t last for long) in the 21st. The renegades of the last century, who took pride in being renegades and standing up for civil and civic rights, became turncoats, not just because of their personal failings but also because no ideology conditioned by a bourgeois (note that I use that term in an economic and not political sense), white, and Anglo Saxon base could be sustained for long. The progressivism that the two Roosevelt presidencies birthed was formulated by policymakers who were derided later on as dangerous parvenus, among them the Vice President under Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, whose attitude of conciliation towards the Soviet Union lost him support from even his own party colleagues.

Added to this was liberalism’s most discernible contribution to the modern polity, human rights. The eminent Czech jurist Karel Vasak in 1979 proposed a differentiation of human rights into three generations. The first generation, as such, was based on the ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality during the French Revolution, ideas that were depicted in Eugene Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People. It was a conception of rights based on participation in civic life, with freedoms and corresponding duties. This was pioneered by two key documents: the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of Independence.

The second generation human rights moved into economic and cultural freedoms, away from the political. Largely a response to the civil rights movement, these entailed, inter alia, affirmative action policies along with rights to education, trade union membership, and housing. Third generation human rights went even further, eschewing nominal civil and social freedoms for collective rights, including the right to self-determination. These were pretty much an offshoot of the United Nations and the concomitant rise in international human rights law, particularly with the 1972 Stockholm Declaration and the 1992 Rio Declaration.

The rights/duties paradigm of the first and second generations was contradicted by the unilateralism of the third. It doesn’t take one much to figure out that the last few decades have seen a catastrophic rise in extremism bred by powerful countries claiming to eradicate “greater evils” by resorting to maverick fanatics. The Mujahideen, the Contras, and Pinochet, not to mention Videla: they were all allies of the liberal West, not because they actually cared for the notions of economic and political rights the West did but because they were on the side of the willing.

The truth is that liberalism was almost always tempered by a sense of exceptionalism and elitism among those who purported to stand for it, which explains the rise of that third generation and the West’s duplicitous record on human rights.

That’s not all.

The liberal hero in America during those happy civil rights days was Atticus Finch, the lawyer from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. A good book and an interesting movie at that, but consider its sequel Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015. A completely different Atticus Finch, bigoted, supportive of those infamous White Supremacist Citizens’ Councils, and opposed to desegregation because desegregation rails against his ideas of small government and free markets, greets us in it. When I was studying Mockingbird in school I was entranced by the man: the liberal hero who exuded our youthful idealisations of equality. The Finch of the second book was a rude awakening. Overnight, those idealisations soured in me.

When I look back now, however, I see in the man not the renegade that Wordsworth (“Just for a handful of silver he left us”) or Coleridge was, but the continuation of the small town liberal he had earlier been. There’s an interesting passage in Go Set a Watchman where his distraught daughter accuses him of being a hypocrite when considering his earlier record on civil rights. But no, she herself realises: that record was always tempered by his belief in black-and-white and blind justice, which had nothing to do with his personal stance on men and women of colour.

So when Atticus, “liberal hero” for many of those who were born to the sixties and seventies, contends that the only reason he opposes the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) is his belief that “coloured people” haven’t reached the standard “white people” have set for them, he is merely touting the rightwing and conservative variant of what everyone else, liberal, reactionary, or libertarian, has espoused: assess the hard-done-by negroes through yardsticks created by white men, the same white men who are out there, making lofty pronouncements against White Supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.

I don’t like to disbelieve in liberalism. Much of the progress we’ve achieved, together, regardless of caste, creed, and colour, as individuals and collectives, have been owing to its profusion everywhere, in every polity. Its self-contradictory personality, which I will dwell on at length in a separate article, is what has ailed it, however, not just yesterday or today, but in all probability tomorrow as well. Sad, I should think.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0


    It’s a very fine piece; I read all the way through.
    I see a little boy sitting in the front of the class and latching on to every English word, phrase, concept …………….. with missionary zeal.
    The colonial subjugation of the Lankan mind at times can be total.
    Walk free from the imposed Anglo-Saxon shackles and be free ……………. be yourself. You are smart enough and you owe it to yourself, young man.
    Out here in the boondoggles a Brown-man by any other cloak/name will still be Brown.
    The trick to learn ………….. is to be yourself …………. you have nothing to prove. And that takes courage. A lot of courage.

  • 0

    I like this writer. An original thinker, not the swallower of crap like many others.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.