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Everyone is a Liberal these days – classical liberal, social liberal, neo-liberal, left liberal, economic liberal, conservative liberal…the variations go on. Despite the variations, all these flavours of liberalism are held together by the common belief in the rational individual as the atomic unit of socio-political existence. The Age of the Individual was ushered in by the Enlightenment, its emphasis on rationality and empiricism fuelling the birth of modernity and giving a fillip to individual rights. The seductive appeal of a universal ethic based on reason was difficult to resist, particularly in Europe where the Church and its excesses had eroded faith in the Christian brotherhood of man.

However, the pendulum finally swung the other way and several critiques of liberalism and its cult of the individual began to be voiced by the early 20th century. Sociologists such as Ferdinand Tönnies and Émile Durkheim warned that the individualism of liberalism threatened the integrity and cohesion of a society, making the famous distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). This work was carried further after the Second World War by the thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Bell, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Neelly Bellah, and Alasdair MacIntyre.

The opposition to liberalism occupies three spaces: the ontological that disputes claims made about the autonomous Self, the political that challenges the rights of the individual over the community, and the social that questions the value or even possibility of an individual not rooted in a mesh of traditions, duties, and relations. At first glance, it might appear that emphasis on the family over the individual originates in Eastern societies but criticism of the liberal foundation has no geographical boundaries. Furthermore, opponents of the liberal ethos are as likely to be secular as they are to be religious.

Perhaps the most obvious salvo at liberalism comes at its tendency to universalise a moral code. Liberals who espouse abstract ideas of justice and fairness meet fierce opposition from traditionalists who view these values as necessarily embedded in the traditions and history of a people and can vary by place, time, and context. The primary focus of this line of argument, a tad unfairly, is John Rawls and his landmark work, A Theory of Justice. Rawls does allow for the possibility that liberalism may not be exportable to all places at all times and accepts the possibility of justifiable non-liberal regimes but nonetheless considers these inferior and worthy only of toleration, not emulation.

The failure of other ideologies like fascism, communism, and theocracies have only buttressed liberal notions of the polity and society. However, an interesting critique has come from the revival of virtue ethics: the purpose of the good life is eudaimonia, an end achieved only by the appropriate balance of intention, will, emotion, habit and capabilities. As such, eudaimonia is flexible not only by culture and time but also by person. Neo-Aristotleians such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foot, and GEM Anscombe argue that purpose of life cannot be separated from the process by which it is achieved and in doing so, revive the ideal of reciprocating local communities whose members play socially given roles and are made intimate by their shared ends.

Unfortunately, Aristotle never envisaged the gigantic scale and complexity of modern cities and states when he wrote about ancient Greek society. What may have worked for a polity of at most 100,000 voting members – and a population of approximately a million – cannot scale up to accommodate nearly 20 million Mumbaikars or over a billion Chinese. In these circumstances, liberals argue, the impersonal liberal system better manages human organisation than particularised communities.

Of course, the question arises whether liberals actually think that the individual self is created ex-nihilo, outside of any social context. As Aristotle argued, the man who can live outside society is either a beast or a god. Similarly, three of the four Hindu purusharthas – dharma, artha, kama – are intrinsically social and only the fourth – moksha – leaves the individual to himself and his relationship with the gods. To be fair, this accusation applies more to libertarians like Robert Nozick far more than it does liberals like Rawls. No matter, the point still holds in that the liberal virtue of unrestrained individual choice trumps the wishes and traditions of the community.

The liberal argument for individual choice rests on the desirability of normative self-determination, meaning that everyone should have the right to make his or her own decisions to secure for themselves the optimal conditions for leading fulfilling life that cherishes the values they hold dear. These choices may be made by an individual taking into account his or her own valuation of tradition and community. Liberals fervently oppose the notion that government endorse communitarian wishes over personal choice, thereby defending a system of rights, powers, opportunities, and self-determination for the individual. There is an interest in periodically questioning traditions, liberals argue, and reviving or abandoning them. This is particularly true for groups who have experienced prejudice against them.

While there are pragmatic reasons to accept these liberal arguments, their solutions run into difficulties in cases where traditional identities also form the core of one’s identity. For example, an oppressed woman might still hold on to traditional understandings of what it means to be a good wife or mother and an attempt to liberate her from her situation may cause irreparable psychological damage; similarly, it is still quite common in India and Asia for people to take care of their aging parents despite familial discord. This is because, as cognitive psychologists tell us, people neither think nor behave as atomistic individuals despite their abstracted arguments for the same. Their emotions are value judgments about the world and how it should be: one takes satisfaction not in the political and social liberty of a man but his success in leading a meaningful life. Whereas the assertion of rights was once confined to matters of essential human interest, a strident rights rhetoric has occupied contemporary political discourse. The cult of the individual, together with materialism and the desire for instant gratification, have left little room for reasoned discussion and compromise between community and individual.

Properly understood, the communal critique of liberalism is not over ossified traditions but about the solutions proffered by liberals that disrupt traditional bonds of kinship, duties, and authority, thereby fuelling the atomistic tendencies of modern society. Several liberal ideas have contributed to the erosion of social responsibilities and important means of social cohesion and communal life. The invisible hand of the free market has also undermined family life and been a questionable influence on politics at best. The rehabilitation of greed fostered a utilitarian ethic that encroached into social and intra-community relationships that had previously functioned on a sense of reciprocity, duty, and civil obligation. This trend was further reinforced by globalisation and the creation of a global marketplace.

It is neither possible nor desirable to turn back the clock; the dogmas of the quiet past are indeed inadequate to the stormy present. Liberalism, the noun and the ideology, must be tempered by a liberal – the adjective – mind. Just as the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment was a reaction to authoritarianism, arbitrary laws, overbearing communities, and rigid dogma, communitarians today are reacting to the undue emphasis on the rights of the egocentric individual. So far, few viable alternative political structures have been offered.

An interesting solution, however, comes from rasa theory in Indian aesthetics. Rasa, the Sanskrit word meaning essence, is fundamental to Indian arts, from dance and music to literature. Its principle lies in exciting emotional states in the audience and it does so by distilling the range of human emotions to a a handful and depicting them vividly. The goal of rasa is not to merely evoke a rudimentary emotional response but one of philosophical and spiritual contemplation. Though there are marked differences between the two, Ancient Greek plays also played an important social role beyond entertainment.

Exposure to great literature, be it the Mahabharata or the Aeneid, the Silappatikaram or the Divina Commedia, instills broad archetypes of human societies in the audience. Over time and with sufficient reflection, it develops empathy in audiences. Literature perhaps does this better than other forms of art because of a clearer intellectual component required in its appreciation. Qualities like empathy strengthen the cohesiveness of communities, be they of geography, profession, or memory. An empathetic society will have less need to resort to rights conferred upon its individual constituents by a centralised and universalising liberal state because grievances may be worked out at the local level. At a political level, it follows that authority must devolve to the local level and laws intruding on personhood and identity must be minimal and restricted only to the essential.

The problem in selling virtues like empathy is that they are not quantifiable and our post-Enlightenment rational minds find it difficult to grasp subjective evaluations, particularly in matters of national policy. The fear is that some sort of inequity may become institutionalised. However, liberals need to stop chasing their utopia as traditionalists have theirs and realise that there is no such thing as universal equality – innate human capabilities and preferences will never allow it.

Ancient political systems may have lost their relevance to modern society but they operated on the sound and realistic principle that people must live together as cooperative and preferably friendly members of communities; no man is an island. Ideologies that erode this foundational observation cannot improve human existence, and though we do not have a “Grand Unified Theory” of social organisation, it hardly helps if we go against common sense.


This post appeared on FirstPost on October 30, 2014.

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