[op-ed snap] Liberalism runs into national populism


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Liberalism

Mains level : Various political ideologies


Liberalism is vanishing

  • Russian President Mr. Putin has made headlines in the world media in an interview by stating that liberalism had “become obsolete”.
  • He went on to say that liberal ideas about refugees, migration and LGBTQ issues were now opposed by the overwhelming majority of the population.
  • Even some western nations had privately admitted that multiculturalism was “no longer tenable”, he said.
  • The wider question is why the Russian President is saying this now and whether he had a point.

Defining Liberalism

  • This complex term is much used in India today in various contexts of opposition to the present Union government.
  • It’s used in a derogatory sense by supporters of the government in respect of its detractors — might broadly encompass three definitions:
  1. There is economic liberalism, which ‘emphasises free competition and the self-regulating market, and which is commonly associated with globalization and minimal state intervention in the economy’.
  2. There is political liberalism, which for most commentators is founded on ‘belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human being, the autonomy of the individual, and standing for political and civil liberties’ as laid out in various UN Covenants.
  3. And then there is social liberalism, ‘linked to the protection of minority groups, and such issues as LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage’.

Idea that is losing popularity

  • Putin appeared critical of the ‘approach of some western governments by specifically mentioning immigration, multiculturalism and LGBTQ issues, and therefore seemed to focus on social and political liberalism’.
  • By no means is Mr. Putin the only world leader who dislikes this aspect of liberalism.
  • The leaders of the democratic world believe that highly centralised political systems work better for political stability and economic progress than western liberal democracies.

An ideology of West

  • Nevertheless, liberalism has been the dominant socio-political ideology in the West since the end of the Second World War, where it has been regarded as the norm until recently.
  • However, many even in the West now believe it could be in decline, as evidenced by support for Brexit in the United Kingdom, or support for populist leaders such as Trump in the U.S.
  • Many thinkers contends that voters everywhere increasingly dislike and distrust elected representatives because western democracy has ceased to work and failed to deliver, and is headed for a long-drawn-out demise.
  • The financial downturn in 2008 marked a major turning point to return to status quo globalization that allowed markets to determine everything and led to major questions of identity and culture.
  • Now globalization is heading for a backlash, leading to protection, local solutions and stronger nation states.
  • And the growing conclusion that liberalism needs urgently to justify itself by addressing issues of inequality and the loss of a sense of community.

Against migrants and migration

  • There is little doubt that America uses the immigration and minority issues, with their racial undertones, to bolster its core political support.
  • Many European countries have embraced asylum seekers from the Middle East pretesting their rights as migrants.
  • This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done because their rights as migrants have to be protected.
  • It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.
  • Nearly all European Union members are convinced that the EU has badly mismanaged the question of admission of refugees, which in turn has led to questioning the very basis of Europe’s integration project.

The Gender issue

  • Putin also deplored liberal governments dictating LGBTQ values that “millions of people making up the core population” opposed.
  • Gender parity issues are strongly promoted in the Western media and entertainment industry.
  • Nevertheless, same sex marriage is recognised only in some countries, others have the death penalty for homosexuality, and laws regarding LGBTQ rights vary widely across jurisdictions.
  • As a generality, it can be stated that they are disfavored in the vast majority of the non-western non-secularized world.

Western liberal doesn’t fit all

  • The Russian President’s position is that every country has a specific and different kind of civilization, where sovereignty trumps democracy and national unity, and stability trumps human rights.
  • Western-style liberalism that prioritizes individual rights over those of society is regarded as a ‘challenge to his style of government’, which presents an alternative model.
  • The same view is shared by China. The desire for liberty is recognised as universal, but the freedom to protest in unauthorized demonstrations and willfully shatter the economy and tourism as in Hong Kong.

Liberty has limitations

  • The freedom to blaspheme and outrage the sentiments of the devout, as in the French Charlie Hebdo case, or the freedom to bear arms as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, are only random examples that show that liberty has limitations, even if they are self-imposed.

Way Forward

  • Russia and China, with good reason, believe that unauthorized demonstrations open the way to foreign interference and ‘colour revolutions’.
  • Similar is the Indian stance on Kashmir issue.
  • No country has found the golden mean between free-range liberalism and statism.
  • When liberal government and liberal models are under pressure even in the flagship West, it is probably ‘as good a time as any for Mr. Putin to make his case’.
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