At present, there seems to be palpable reaction against ideas of tolerance, minority rights, freedom of expression, and respect for individual autonomy and dignity, in many parts of the world. In this article, Pranab Bardhan contends that global traits of the populist right suggest how liberals can take it on.
Faced with raging right-wing populism across the world, there has been a tendency among columnists to portray it with a broad brush, blurring important distinctions. It is common, for example, to see fingers pointing at the backlash to globalisation. But if one takes the whole range of rich, middle income, and poor countries across continents, there is certainly no worldwide rebellion against the forces of globalisation. A survey across 18 countries, reported in The Economist (19 November 2016), suggests that the majority are quite positive on globalisation in India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Denmark, Hong Kong, and so on (if China were included, probably it’d have been in the same list). On the other hand, support for globalisation is low in the US, France, Britain, and Australia - the expected fallout in rich countries from the decline in their century-old domination in international trade and investment. Everywhere there is a struggle to find a niche in the ever-changing global value chain and retrain the workforce in line with the changing demand for skills. Similarly, immigration is a major divisive issue mainly in Europe and the US, while the developing countries lobby for relaxation of immigration restrictions in rich countries.
Yet virulent majoritarianism, populism and nationalism are no less rampant in, say, India, China, Russia, or Turkey, even though anti-globalisation and anti-immigration forces are weak. If one takes liberty, equality, and fraternity as the three essential elements of a decent society, one sees disillusionment with the first and ambiguous responses to the other two in these populist movements across many countries, rich and poor. There seems to be palpable reaction against ideas of tolerance, minority rights, freedom of expression, and respect for individual autonomy and dignity, in many parts of the world. In the majority communities (like those who support Modi in India, Donald Trump in the US, Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary, or Erdogan in Turkey), strengthened by the electoral arithmetic of democracies, there is resentment against a perceived appeasement of minorities (blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Kurds, etc.) that is implicit in liberal support for minority rights. In the anxiety of the erosion of their ethnic dominance, the minorities become easy scapegoats. The majority finds the rhetoric of diversity and political correctness condescending, if not socially threatening, and do not care much about the procedural niceties of a liberal order.
To the extent liberalism prioritises individual freedom over community bonding and traditional loyalties, many feel their basic values (and a nostalgia for a false golden past) being disrespected. In this sense, liberty and fraternity are not always in harmony. Of course, fraternity and community solidarity can easily degenerate into parochial exclusivity.
There is also a lazy presumption among the left-liberals that rising inequality and concentration of wealth with the top 1% are behind the working-class anger that the demagogues are exploiting. While stagnation of wages and jobs and dim prospects of upward mobility have darkened the outlook of many working-class families, they often seem to be less exercised about the economic elite than about the cultural elite. They adore billionaire tycoons like Trump or an affluent commodities trader like Farage or a multimillionaire Orban, or a Modi cosy with crony capitalists, or an Erdogan who lives in a palace in sultanic splendour. They are angrier about the cultural elite whose preaching of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism offends their sense of cultural rootedness, making them easy prey to the ethnic nationalism that is often the first refuge of demagogues, whose criticisms are branded as elitist and anti-national.
Minorities and immigrants are demonised as obstacles to national unity and historical facts are not allowed to interfere with nationalist myth-making. As the 19th century French philosopher Ernest Renan famously said, part of being a nation is to get its history wrong.
Egalitarians often undervalue the preference for (and pride in) jobs rather than welfare handouts. A pet peeve against the cosmopolitan elite is also its preoccupation with green regulations, with lofty long-run goals and global climate concerns, often at the expense of immediate job dislocations in the neighbourhood.
An assessment of commonalities in resentments across continents suggests some common action plans for the liberals. For example, they should focus their energy on reviving workers’ associations (they have historically played a role, beyond wage-bargaining, in taming and transcending nativist passions), in encouraging workers’ participation in governance inside the firm when it decides to outsource or relocate and, outside the firm, in linking up with neighbourhoods and communities in local social and cultural activities. In poor countries, where most workers are in the informal sector, outside the unions (as are the workers in the ‘gig economy’ of rich countries), some new demands like a minimum basic income as a citizen’s right can provide a common forum and build a bridge across these different types of workers.
On the environment, the liberals should ally with many nature-friendly religious groups and try to persuade people about how environmental projects like renewable energy are actually job-creating. These community associations and platforms can also get together in actively dispelling the miasma of right-wing disinformation and rumours that ‘go viral’ on social media, harming workers’ solidarity.
Finally, demagogues thrive when institutions of democracy are hollowed out. Discarding the obsession with political correctness, the liberals should go back to their traditional areas of concern in vigilance against violation of basic human rights of minorities and in fostering public opinion against the hankering for ‘strong leaders’ who ride roughshod over the rule of law and, in developing countries, also abuse the police and bureaucracy to serve their narrow goals, besides working for substantial electoral and administrative reforms everywhere towards a more accountable polity.
This article first appeared in Outlook Magazine here, and was re-published on Ideas for India blog here.