Conservative consolidation and liberal anxiety

Mudrarakshasa

It was a humbling experience to read reactions of the valued readers on my longread on Countermobilization of Rightwing in India. Some reactions appeared on social media and some came personally to the publisher and website moderator. Some reactions came to me directly when I shared the article with the people I value. Knowing that someone has read the output is a big high for a writer and constructive criticism is always enriching and for that, I remain deeply grateful.

Having said that, I would like to emphasize that this is not a rejoinder piece and the sole purpose of mentioning the reaction to the longread is to convey that the idea of this follow-up article came from the reactions of the esteemed readers. I think this is the most important benefit of engaging with people, they start a chain of thoughts leading to something useful, hopefully.

To some readers, the article appeared to be justifying the rise of the Rightwing. In fact, the article was seen by some as ‘sugar coating’ an exclusionary and aggressive ideology by providing excuse of absence of intellectual support network. I understand the frustration of those who do not find the article sufficiently critical of the Rightwing’s aggressive behavior. This criticism is not too out of place in the present times when we are witnessing resistance  against the tide of right wing in various forms across the globe.  In fact, in USA , media has been severely criticized for seeking ‘false balance’ while reporting about Trump vis-à-vis liberal backlash. They say by doing so media gave oxygen in the form of media coverage to Trump and created a kind of equivalence to his nihilistic hatred filled utterings with the well-thought-out liberal opposition. They hold the view that older norms of fairness and balanced coverage do a disservice to the cause of democracy and civilization and instead call for a ruthless disavowal of the forces spreading hatred and espousing despotism. No doubt, there should be an unwavering focus on defeating these forces and the focus might get weakened by ambivalence and empathy. Even fairness may be a weakness. While agreeing to this wartime framework of ‘survival at any cost’, there are two things which can be said in defense of the previous longread we are talking about. Firstly, it was not exactly the part of that war. It was a modest attempt to trace the growth and impact of absence of robust intellectual network on its growth trajectory. Second point is that all forms of resistance against right wing views should be carried out with a sense of responsibility because the battle would already be lost if liberalism takes an extremist position – a position devoid of compromise, middle ground or possibility of existence of differing creeds – thus negating the very definition of liberalism.

Part of the problem might be due to terminological confusion. Right, Conservative and Populist are the terms that are usually applied to the regimes that have come up in UK, USA, Brazil, India, Turkey etc. All these terms have proper definitions. For example, conservatism in its classical form means something very different from what President Trump or Prime Minister Modi are doing. Edmund Burke, widely considered as the fountainhead of conservatism wrote that conservatism recommends “a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve.”   Burkean conception has been understood as emphasizing “religion as a societal foundation, experience as a guide to appropriate policy and behavior, social classes as a natural feature of society, and, when circumstances justify it, to prefer gradual rather than radical change.”  Conservatism relies more on community and faith-based organizations for welfare of the underprivileged and success of the society. Government role was aimed to be limited but the Conservatives, post Reagan, started accepting strong role of government in promotion of traditional social order and values.

Right is usually considered conservative and shares many of its elements. There is a marked economic dimension to all these schools of thought which is nowhere to be found in its pure form in what qualify as conservative or rightwing regimes. As explained in the longread, today’s conservative movement has taken a definite identitarian hue. Populism, on the other hand, can be both right or left. Here, an ‘elite’ is decided by a charismatic demagogue and he/(rarely she) promises the ‘people’ emancipation from the elite’s exploitation. Polarization is sorting of the society on the poles. Polarization should not be considered same as extremism. Extreme views can exist but if sufficiently large number of people still occupy the middle and extremist minorities occupy the poles than the society is not polarized.

Today’s India, at national level, is dominated by populists which may be closer to the labels of right or conservatives with society getting polarized. The populace is being sorted into ideological camps with very little in between. Indian political diversity is still claiming its space in the state elections. However, at national level ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ camps are taking shape with clear enough demarcations. These camps have ossified into teams or tribes with great hatred for the out group. The Right is deepening its message of historical hurt, appeasement, and neglect of ‘people’ by ‘elites’ and ‘outsider’s. The Right tries to mobilize people by fear and danger (immigrants, minorities culture), liberals respond by their own fear and dangers (democracy, minorities, institutions). This has many implications for the ideological public sphere, especially as ground is shifting beneath technological , epistemological, media, and political landscapes.

Pushed by social, economic and above all, technological developments ideological sorting has considerably evaporated the middle ground. Middle ground is the fertile soil where liberal virtues of plurality, restrain and accommodation prosper. By turning the nation into warring teams, tribes or camps, politics has risen to the level of a master prism to see everything. This ascendence of the political/ideological framework has been augmented by an epistemological framework where authority of expert has no longer the decisive role of the earlier times. As everything is seen from the prism of political affiliations and technology provides means to dissect even ‘expert’ opinion, people are not ready to accept any version of reality handed down by the ‘authorities’ and ‘experts’. This challenge to authority has gone beyond the healthy skepticism of the inquisitive and independent reader about the motives of the authority (government, media, experts, academia etc) and has degenerated into a nihilistic denial of reality. Progress of knowledge is dependent on a modicum of consensus on what forms ‘conventional wisdom’. Furthermore, this dismantling of the umpire/expert-network is taking place in highly polarized partisan environment. Ideological interest and word of the leader is becoming arbiter of truth. Today, media persons are less of authority figures and more of  performers in a partisan show whose approval ratings are decided by his or her ability to please the core audience which come to the platform to participate in a tribal feast not to understand the nuances of reality. Media’s success is increasingly in providing affirmation rather than illumination.  The fault lines and fissures of the society get more pronounced by ever deepening divisive messaging.

This vicious circle is more applicable for the Right which has shown itself to be, in the words of one of the readers, ‘inherently aggressive and exclusionary’.  It needs to be noted, that liberal ideology, with its ‘inherently strong moral foundation’ (not author’s words) and its diversity of stakeholders is somewhat spared many negative extremist deficiencies of the current polarized moment. However, it is not completely, immune to the game of black and white polarization.  Certainty and absence of doubt about the wrong of the other side is a mark of an obdurate fanatic. Many right-wingers are using this sweeping assessment of outgroups – ills of immigrations, islamophobia (painting Islam only as inherently aggressive religion), appeasement of minorities, to count few prominent ones. I am certainly not very happy to see the inability of some of the liberal critics to see the differing strands of conservatism/right wing. Aggressive unsavoriness of current Rightwing expression has created a situation where its critics are not able to conceive it beyond the havoc that it is perpetrating. Intensity of hatred among the liberal critics and their sweeping judgment is not only detrimental to possibility of any meaningful debate but also goes against the ethos of liberalism.

One reader, in his/her feedback talked of transient nature of appeal of the rightwing and return of liberal thought after a brief patch of black phase of authoritarianism. While accepting laudable and short-term validity of the optimism, this author would like to reiterate with some amount of diffidence that due to the factors discussed in the above two paragraphs, this hoped for triumphant return will not be that easy this time. Historically also, liberalism’s sway has been very short and geographically very limited. Liberalism is a huge civilsational achievement but not of very old vintage. Despite its lofty elements and uplifting narrative, for most of its history, liberalism has many dark inconvenient truths swept under the carpet. Examples like slavery, women rights, imperialism, inequality, labour rights and much more had been either ignored or were considered after massive push from below. I find it slightly difficult to share the hope of exact pattern of history repeating itself and belief that what we consider truth will prevail, definitely not in its current form and not in short term. However, that’s a topic for a different post.

One of the most perceptive criticism of the article has pointed out that the write up fails to answer a very key question i.e. “if power continues on weak foundation, what will be consequences… /… if power creates a new intellectual climate, what will be the consequences.”  This deficiency is there in the article and cause, in no lesser degree, is this author’s intellectual limitations. Ramchandra Guha has dealt with this question in much more details and  with great success. He has clearly pointed out the impact of absence of intellectual heft on the growth path of Rightwing in India. One of the key takeaway of Guha’s article is that the total identification of Indian conservatism and rightwing with RSS/BJP thought process was not inevitable and there were other strands of the conservative thought in India represented by Raja ji, Rajendra Prasad, Tilak, Patel etc. These strands did not find a favorable climate, reasons like Gandhi’s life and assassination, Congress System and long rule of Nehru and his team were discussed in the previous article wherein it was argued that compared to political and network entrepreneurs of the right, their intellectuals fell way short to the task at hand.

Intellectual foundation of any movement may sound like an elitist enterprise compared to the dust and grind of the revolution but it is important. Right-wing’s current abhorrent form can be explained, at least partially, by the absence of quality intellectuals. This should not be seen as any justification of the current horror, just a partial explanation for the perplexed observer of social political scene.   

In conclusion, it will not be out of place to strike a note of caution for the future direction of the liberal intellectual movement. There are many factors that give rise to this worry. For example, societal climate of trolling may discourage slightly less committed liberal intellectuals to participate in the public sphere due to rampant unpleasantness or liberal intellectuals may simply be overwhelmed by the intensity of the arena and end up in a war mode rather than deliberative mode to enrich democracy. 

Secondly, constantly decreasing institutional patronage is already a worry. Electoral predominance and public support for the rightist ideology has started penetrating the ivory walls of academia and professional institutions. Unlike developed world where push back from academia is widespread, Indian resistance has been limited to handful of institutions, though not insignificant.

Thirdly, the rightist challenge to many underlying assumptions of liberalism needs more vigorous introspection and fight back. The constant attack on the basic tenants of Liberalism –secular state, minority protection, limited state power, separation of power, plurality, moderation, forbearance etc are being lampooned more forcefully than they are being defended in India.  

Fourthly, growing data on the historical failures of the liberal/capitalistic enterprise needs to be tackled with grace and humility. Sparkling record of liberalism and capitalism has many dark truths like slavery, women right issues, inequality, discussed above. They should be accepted and also critics should be educated about the inherent decent core of the Liberalism that led to a sustained struggle against these ills.

Finally, biggest worry is the growing hatred for other philosophies. Inherent power of Liberalism is its accommodative and plural spirit. Current war-like situation has made it difficult for liberals to stay true to these ideals. However, a constant awareness of this aspect is important if this war is to be fought with any legitimacy. Continued health of liberal thought will require sustained mobilization(sustained and untiring outreach to the masses), quality output (Intellectual class will have to rise to the occasion), patronage (by liberal minded businessmen, states and media outlets), entrepreneurship (political, network and intellectual)and, to top it all, an intellectual honesty that doesn’t shy away from its failure.

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