Testing the Limits of Liberalism

We live in dark times. For some, the accident of birth provides insulation and safety. A womb-like existence defined by ephemeral exposures, if at all, to the presence of an outside. Simultaneously, an overwhelming majority have the exact opposite experience. Unambiguously marked and categorized in a world not of their making, life itself, seen through the former lens, appears to be a transient game of reactions. The goal of the game is simple — survival. In continuation with this Manichean portrait of the world, my thought will work through two dominant registers. Needless to say, these registers are wholly conceptual; both focus on examining what I see as specific limits to “liberalism.” Limits that present events expose and highlight.

On the one hand, within the United States, since November 2014, there has been sustained activity around the question of race, and particularly, around the primacy and continued prevalence of racial oppression. Sparked off by the killings of innocent black men at the hands of a militarized white supremacist police force, the Black Lives Matter movement (hereafter BLM) has focused on drawing attention to explicit cases of state sanctioned racial violence. Such violence isn’t new. Ever since the “discovery” of America, violence, especially violence targeting non-whites, has been a fact of life. Today, this fact is either easily glossed over or a token acknowledgement is made by so-called progressive liberal rhetoric.

The goal of BLM seems to crystallize around two things—first, pointing out racial injustice; and second, mounting a fight so that such injustice can be dealt with. In the present moment, tied to BLM, we have seen another manifestation of this fight against racism — students of color across college campuses are protesting institutionalized white supremacy. A number of colleges and universities, following Missouri’s lead, have held demonstrations that are in solidarity with each other and against their particular institutions’ structures. In both cases, BLM and campus movements against institutionalized racism, the demands made turn on two fundamental positions — first, a recognition of, an acknowledgement if you would like, of structures of racial oppression and prevalence of white supremacy; and secondly, a move towards rectifying/mitigating the material effects of these white supremacist structures and ideologies. This is reminiscent of the 60’s civil rights movement.

On the other hand, terrorism, introduced to the West on 9/11 and consolidated by the most recent Paris attacks, shakes up, albeit briefly but powerfully, the idyllic and tranquil existence enjoyed by some. An ephemeral exposure to the outside. On the right, historical amnesia is visible in all its glory. In this clash of civilizations, “we” the West must take a strong and uncompromising stance. In the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan was invaded, then Iraq; at least Osama’s dead. Sorry Saddam, but you had to go too. The day after the Paris attacks, France started bombing Syria. Syria, as we speak, is being bombed by NATO countries and the Russians. Is there a winner in this game? I’m not so sure, but it’s definitely not the civilians on the ground. And the civilians that made it out of Syria, the refugees, they must be criminalized and prevented from entering any Western country.

On the Left, there’s a mad scramble to intricately lay out the historical, political, and economic involvement of the West in the creation of terrorism. Western hypocrisy is exposed. The West and Saudi Arabia (the bastion of Wahhabism) are in bed together. We must not succumb to fear; we must not make the mistakes that were made in the post 9/11 reaction. We must let the refugees in. We must become more tolerant to other ways of living and being; Muslims should be respected and not discriminated against. They are people after all.

What is liberalism? Originating in the Enlightenment, liberalism takes the rational individual as its starting premise. Private property, as some kind of extension of individuality, is usually a given. Under liberalism, then, the rights that individuals (and by extension their property) possess, must at all costs be protected. Of course, the rights of the individual are context specific; they have been constituted over time at specific locations through various struggles. The Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) are paradigmatic documents that lay the foundation of liberal rights discourse. It should be clear that liberalism works in distinct ways in distinct contexts — for example, both the United States and India are liberal regimes. The reader should be careful not to confuse what I mean by liberalism with the common conservative-liberal dichotomy. Democrats and Republicans alike are liberals in the sense underscored above. Formally speaking, freedom and equality are the cornerstones of liberalism. In reality, freedom and equality do not easily translate into materially relevant claims.

BLM and related campus movements, in challenging the failure of the formal liberal rights of freedom and equality, point out the gap that exists between the abstract and the real. Although people of color (under a liberal regime such as the United States) have the same rights as white people, these rights don’t seem to matter when, say, a young black man comes in contact with law enforcement. We must not only recognize that racial hierarchies exist but also that these hierarchies exert very real material effects. Similarly, on college campuses, students of color are emphasizing this very fact. In light of the liberal disconnect between the formal and the real, the solution demanded is some variation of better inclusion within the pre-existing order of things. In other words, it is a liberal demand; a demand that turns on pointing out hypocrisy and consequently asking for such hypocrisy to be removed.

Although I agree with the diagnosis by the left of the problem of terrorism, I am uneasy about recourse to a language of tolerance. One of the hallmarks of liberalism is its often times unconscious insistence on categorization. It is ironic and deeply troubling that liberalism, colonialism, and slavery were closely tied together — liberal rights extended only to white men, often with the added caveat of being a property-owner. The inside-outside boundary, although synchronic and open to contestation, nevertheless remains, and will always remain, essential to the liberal project. One is a liberal only because there exist non-liberals. The very idea of liberalism would be obsolete if everyone was a liberal. It is at this literal limit of liberalism where talk of tolerance reigns supreme. I hope you can see the hypocrisy—a call for the toleration of others is itself predicated on an assumed position of privilege. Although this claim that I have just made is debatable in certain contexts, it is certainly not debatable when coming from left-leaning intellectuals in the United States or Europe.

Liberals — Left and Right — in their responses to BLM and terrorism betray their complicity in reproducing hierarchical structures of power.

BLM and campus movements against racial injustice are crucial; they provide hope in a hopeless situation. The work they are doing is clearly having an effect on the social fabric. The fact that five BLM protesters were shot by armed white supremacists testifies to this. White supremacists are threated by BLM and they should be. However, if we are to truly dismantle racial oppression, if we are to truly attempt to eradicate terrorism, asking for the implementation of rights, or for tolerance, is not going to solve the underlying structures that affect and indelibly constitute us. We are face to face with the limits of liberalism both inside and outside. There are two question we must ask ourselves—is it possible to truly imagine a world that is both free and equal? Or, is asking the very question about freedom and equality the root of the problem?

As we confront the limits of liberalism, the nature of politics is illuminated in a flash—it is nothing more than a naked struggle for power.

Siddhant Issar is a first year PhD student in political theory at UMass Amherst. Read other articles by Siddhant.