Thursday, December 8th, 2022 21:45:28

Crisis of US Liberalism A Blind Turn of History

Updated: May 18, 2017 10:40 am

The Statute of Liberty foregrounds the individual as ontologically a priori. The individual stands apart and alone. His potential is actualized through initiative and enterprise. The US Constitution could not prevent this principle from cracking under the impact of contentious events and policies. This can be illustrated with reference to the New Deal, the Vietnam War and the Immigrant demands. Let us take the immigrant demands first. Their demand for ‘freedom of conscience’, when conceded, could not be contained as freedom of individual’s conscience and extended it to the community to which the individual belonged. So it was enjoyed collectively and in ways decided by the community. The consequent boundedness of collective conscience, represented in everyday life by organized religion, divided it from the rest of the society and, in certain circumstances, was more subversive of peace and order there than economic inequality or difference based on national origin. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison referred to differences of the latter type, and, while arguing that America should be a federation, not a confederation, they visualized that all such differences and divisions would be subject to hegemonic appropriation.

‘Freedom of conscience’ was conceded in the name of tolerance. In academic understanding of the terms, toleration contrasts with pluralism. To tolerate is to accept something grudgingly while pluralism is celebration of diversity. According to Sigmund Freud, the immigrants twisted the primacy of the ‘individuated Westner’ into arguments for pluralist communitarianism, which indeed trumped individual liberty.

The entry of organized community as a political actor in US politics pushed US liberalism into a crisis, the crisis of primacy between the individual and the community. It was a change of paradigm. The academics invented an oxymoron, ‘liberal-Marxist’, to connote the new paradigm. They flagged the idea of a multi-cultural America whose self-understanding sought to defend its plurality by grounding it on the moral equality of all people. This was the ideal, an Idea of America to be realized in future through historical progress. The real America was an Anglo-American Protestant America. The diverse communities were expected to integrate with it. The integrative processes were subject to suitable immigration policies and subtle exclusionary practices. The jihadi terrorism challenged this and its transnational solidarity revealed the limits of the integrative mechanism.

Earlier, the Vietnam War had pushed a wedge between Real America and American immigrant communities. It brought the ‘lived experience’ of social difference into the heart of emancipatory struggles for democratic and egalitarian political legitimacy. The focus was on subject viewpoints which were as varied as their contexts. Their fictionalization for media, art and literature built up an imagined dynamic of difference and mobilized political pressure for realizing policy outcomes. Against this background, Martin Luther King, Jr. worked for moderation and negotiated with Black Power the practical necessity of non-violent action for achieving equal rights for African-Americans. US liberalism still suffered a setback when some enthusiastic activists sought revenge and reverse discrimination, or turned to plot-like structure of action where personal interests sought to configure institutional power in their favour. The radicalized agency replaced the ‘iron curtain of ideology’ with the ‘velvet curtain of culture’ so that ‘culturized conflicts’ while negating the integrative imperative would end up in splitting the American society and outflank its ideological position. The convergence of race, class and culture, a strategic Marxist innovation, also served as the subtext of the student movement during the sixties and the seventies.  The movement attacked the political institutions of liberal America for concentrating power in the hands of interlocked elite which was not tormented when Black soldiers were dying far away from American shores in Vietnam. Race relations now came to be categorized as class relations. A sharp contrast between the living conditions of urban dwellers in post-industrial societies and that of the immigrants, and worse still, that of illegal immigrants, motivated such populist conflation of race with class. The Whites used reason to explain away the contrast but this was mainly to cage the racial factor as unreasonable. In the run-up for Watergate exposures, such explanations were jettisoned. ‘Liberal-Marxists’ especially in the Democratic Party shoved in Black support by driving the Republican President, Richard Nixon, into the dock.

The representation of the Republican Party as an embodiment of American realism became an academic fixation and served as an opening for articulation of opposition to US foreign policy especially towards the non-Western world, again revealing holes in US liberalism. The metropolitan control of economy in ex-colonies was alleged to highlight Keynesian militarism (military-industrial complex) as an instrument of war and dominance. Krame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere described it as a relationship of neocolonialism. The Latin American liberal-Marxists characterized it as a condition of dependency and emphasized on a dialectical relationship between modernization and underdevelopment. The framework of ‘core-periphery’ relationship was later advanced as a supplement to it.

The liberal-Marxist modifications in US liberalism started roughly during the late thirties when Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, pushed the New Deal programmes in the face of conservative opposition both within Republican and Democratic Parties. FDR went to the extent of expelling dissident Democrats from the Congress.  In his view, individual initiative and private philanthropy did not offer a solution to problems in America. He went ahead with the formation of a ‘liberal-labour-left’ coalition. It was known as the ‘Democratic-left’. It aimed at building popular pressure on representative and regulatory institutions for boosting development. This ignited the minds of left-intellectuals including those in India. At the same time, the ‘democratic-left’ criticized high technology industrialization led by MNCs.  They radicalized ecology and projected the local reality through its seductive images. The aim was to oppose monocultural consumerism which they believed was destroying social diversity and replacing it with an American version of good life. But, in the present post-cold war phase, this opposition was not able to withstand the onslaught of transnational actors powered by knowledge and information in different policy areas. These actors reject communitarian prejudices and engage popular majorities for reshaping domestic politics and world affairs towards a more humane society. The transnational solidarities are the emergent communities replacing organized religion as political actor.  This should mark the return of the individual to the centre stage. No wonder, the Real America is ‘back again’. The Ideal America, as conceived by liberal-Marxists, was just an idea for ‘young Hegelians’ to toy with. Ideal America is not yet a product of history.

The focus on it for almost half a century was a blind turn of history, as it faulted in labeling the struggle for political emancipation as human emancipation.

(The writer is a JNU Professor {Retd.})

By Sushil Kumar

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