Prem Chandavarkar on Thu, 29 Dec 2016 19:27:26 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Where is Liberalism?

   While written specifically for an audience in India, I believe it is a
   question that affects all geographies.


   Where is Liberalism?

   A few weeks ago, I attended the launch of a book titled [2]What Does It
   Mean To Be A Liberal In India.  The book is the product of an essay
   competition for young thinkers that was held by The [3]Friedrich
   Naumann Foundation for Freedom, and from over 300 entries, 19 selected
   essays form the content of the book, all written by young Indians in
   their 20's.  Three of the authors were present at the event, and
   participated in discussions with contemporaries from the network of
   [4]The Takshashila Institute (who had organised the event).  It was
   truly encouraging to know that young adults in India are thinking
   seriously on both the importance and nuances of liberalism.  And the
   event was also a provocation to think more deeply on liberalism,
   specifically in the context of a country like India and the current
   challenges faced.

   There was some discussion on whether liberalism is an import from the
   West, given that its concepts and methodologies have largely been
   developed in Western contexts.  But the consensus was that a core
   feature of modern democracy is that it seeks  to replace earlier models
   of feudalism and colonialism, and the resultant priority granted to
   individual freedom means that the ethical imperatives of liberalism
   render the geography of its origin as irrelevant.  However, when we
   develop protocols of liberalism that derive from other contexts, we run
   up against problems in the specificities of our own context, and there
   was speculation on whether the definition of liberalism needed tweaking
   or adjustment in the Indian context.

   This dilemma is reflected in a question that came up (but was not
   adequately tackled) in one of the discussions: does a Muslim woman who
   feels she must wear a burkha as an expression of her identity need to
   be made aware that this identity is also a means of repressing her?  A
   liberal position would tend to argue against the burkha as a
   prescriptive norm; for even if it is justified as something that serves
   the woman's safety, by doing so it recognises that there is a problem
   of predatory sexual behaviour in which women are the victims, yet fails
   to challenge the patriarchal bias from which the problem springs by
   pushing a solution that places the onus on the victim to repress
   herself rather than on the perpetrator to behave with decency.  But if
   the liberal argues that the woman should not wear the burkha, and the
   fundamentalist argues that she should, both are guilty of the same
   crime: they both instruct the woman to instantly adopt an identity that
   someone else has constructed, instead of empowering her with the means
   to go through the process of deriving it on her own.

   All of us are victims of our own conditioning to an extent that we
   rarely recognise.  It is not easy escape it, and we need help and time
   to break free of repressions contained in our past.  What the woman
   really needs is a sheltered space where she can confront this question
   free from external coercion or pressure, where she can find information
   that presents both sides of the question, where time is granted to her
   so that she can unhurriedly work her way through this dilemma, where
   she can access the support systems she needs, and most importantly,
   where she is given the assurance that whatever conclusion she arrives
   at will be accepted because it is her own free choice.  The overriding
   question then becomes one of where she can find such a sheltered
   space.  Which throws light on where the problem really is when we
   realise that such spaces are in very short supply.  Without such a
   space, the woman will find herself helplessly buffeted between
   conflicting forces: a conservative community of conformance within
   which she has grown up; a civil society made of people very different
   from her, and whose expectations are based on precepts largely foreign
   to her; and trolling from fundamentalists in both physical space and
   social media.  Deprived of the sheltered space she needs, she cannot
   exercise a liberal freedom to construct her own identity, is likely to
   choose an option based on the pressures of the moment, and realise the
   consequences only much later when it might be too late or too difficult
   to retract.

   In this sense, the book falls into a trap that most discussions on
   liberalism fall into.  It assumes that the major question is "What is
   liberalism?".  This is a question that will hopefully never be
   answered, for to answer it definitively is to limit subsequent action
   to following a formula out of habit.  The questions of liberalism and
   freedom are forever alive, always to be tackled, answered, renegotiated
   and reconstructed within changing contexts.  To set up the supporting
   infrastructure that empowers this, we must realise that the overarching
   question should be "Where is liberalism?": a question that will compel
   us to create the sheltered public space that is needed.

   Twenty-six years ago, in his [5]Nobel Prize Lecture, the poet Octavio
   Paz warned us that we were entering an era for the first time in
   history where metahistorical questions were no longer debated in the
   public sphere, but had moved into privatised realms.  To retain a
   value-based foundation, it is necessary that such questions are
   simultaneously approached by people who are different from each other,
   yet willing to engage with each other: a possibility only within the
   public realm.   Within private space, the spaces are of similarity
   rather than difference, and this transforms questions of metahistory
   into tribal passions rather than the bridging of difference by tackling
   core ethical or idealistic values.  Once this becomes a dominant trend,
   the public realm degenerates into a contestation for power between
   forms of fanatical nationalism or religious fury, inflexibly fossilised
   within the private realm, pre-empting the possibility of public debate
   or adjustment.

   In his book [6]The Politics of the Governed, Partha Chatterjee argues
   that we recognise the concept of civil society as resting at the
   foundation of liberalism, but fail to recognise how fragmented and
   isolated this society is from the bulk of the population.  In the
   Indian context, he defines this group as "the closed association of
   modern elite groups, sequestered from the wider popular life of the
   communities, walled up within enclaves of civic freedom and rational
   law".  The bulk of society is what Chatterjee calls political society:
   a population that follows tribal principals of communal solidarity,
   applying connections with the nation state to politically lobby with
   "governmental agencies pursuing multiple policies of security and
   welfare", where security and welfare, rather than being universal
   categories, are applied uniquely to the community that seeks them.
   When civil society recognises this wider population, it perceives them
   as stuck in a different mode of time, one that is pre-modern.  Rather
   than looking at how it can bridge the gulf between the two populations,
   civil society turns inwards in the belief that it should protect the
   secular foundations of constitutional liberalism as the contemporary
   space of modernity, in the faith that democracy will somehow allow the
   pre-modern to eventually catch up and enter this protected space.  In
   this inward turn, civic society becomes one more privatised quest for
   significance, another tribe among the various tribes in the contest for

   The structural barriers of caste, class, gender (and other exclusions)
   that prevent these different "tribes" from coming together receive
   scant attention, and are gradually rendered invisible as the gaze of
   each of the various tribes turns more and more inward.  In a
   hard-hitting rendition of how extreme this has become, in a poem titled
   [7]Man You Should Explode from the series Golpitha (translated by Dilip
   Chitre) the Marathi Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal writes

   One should open the manholes of sewers and throw into them

   Plato, Einstein, Archimedes, Socrates,

   Marx, Ashoka, Hitler, Camus, Sartre, Kafka,

   Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, Hopkins, Goethe,

   Dostoevsky, Mayakovsky, Maxim Gorki,

   Edison, Madison, Kalidasa, Tukaram, Vyasa, Shakespeare, Jnaneshvar

   And keep them rotting there with all their words.

   Dhasal's words remind us that we live in a world where manual
   scavenging still exists, where the Dalit is dehumanised by
   untouchability to the level where it does not matter to others if his
   body is buried in sewage, where (like the prostitute) the existence of
   an individual rendered untouchable is included within social
   consideration only by dehumanisation to the point that all autonomy and
   desire are erased.  When social fragmentation exists at this level,
   idealistic thought (whether from philosophers, litterateurs,
   scientists, politicians or sages) may as well not exist, and is
   pointless for it will never reach the world of a person like the
   scavenger; in which case, it may as well be thrown into the same sewer
   to which he has been dismissed.

   Liberalism rests on a foundation of human rights, and rights cannot be
   considered universal if they are only applied to people who are similar
   to us.  They can be called universal only when we are committed to
   applying them to everyone, especially the people with whom we are least
   capable of interacting.  For liberalism to exist, it needs a vibrant
   and inclusive public realm: a commons that contains the sheltered
   spaces and support systems that empowers people to be whom they want to
   be or become, irrespective of whom they may have been, and how affluent
   they are. Where this discourse happens is far more important than any
   conceptualisation of liberalism: and as long as the body politic
   exhibits a fundamental and degrading fragmentation, liberalism will
   remain an irrelevant, or at best peripheral, issue.  Politics shall
   remain incomplete and abstract until it is inclusively spatialised at
   the level of everyday life, and on this count there is much work to be
   done: at the levels of spatial design, politics and philosophy.



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