Ordinary Illiberalism

by Varun Gauri

The challenge for liberal societies is to understand the allure of illiberalism in the first place, with far more honesty and subtlety than we muster.  —Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Why does illiberalism appear attractive to so many people in liberal societies these days? Part of the answer, certainly, is that liberal regimes, and especially neoliberal economies, have failed to deliver economic prosperity to all. Liberal regimes have become less responsive to democratic demands, instead concentrating political decision making and economic market share among fewer and fewer individuals, organizations, and firms.

But why turn to illiberalism in response? Why not more democracy, more inclusion, rather than less? Why not approaches that might directly tackle social, political, and economic inequalities, such as northern European welfarism, shared corporate governance, or even Gandhian localism? Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Part of the explanation, I want to suggest, in a tentative and exploratory way, is that illiberalism never disappears, even in liberal societies. Features of human psychology, combined with contemporary moral demands, have produced a beast that is extremely difficult to kill off. The monster is always there, beneath the surface.

By liberalism, I mean the moral intuition that human beings are equal in dignity and all incommensurably valuable. Societies embed that moral idea in diverse constitutions, political systems, welfare schemes, property rights regimes, and child-raising practices. As a result, liberal societies take different positions on economic liberty, religious freedom, and equality among social groups, among other issues.

However, illiberalism is not just another one of these “takes,” a point of view on the tension between equality and liberty, or a position that prioritizes group over individual rights. Rather, what we are witnessing these days, in many liberal societies, is the the explicit repudiation of the belief that human beings are equal in dignity and all incommensurably valuable. (By illiberalism, I’m referring to explicit views, not to acts of violence or prejudice motivated by racial or other kinds of animus.) We see illiberalism in the support for separating immigrant parents from their children, in the endorsement of torture, and, of course, in the belief that certain people (“real citizens”) have a moral monopoly on legitimate representation and political leadership. Illiberalism of this sort need not be grand or even consistently ideological, the product of a more or less careful reading of, say, Carl Schmitt or M. S. Gowalkar. Rather, it arises from a concentration of the ordinary responses of the human psyche to contemporary pressures.

There are at least four roads to ordinary illiberalism. First, the core moral intuition of liberalism is cognitively demanding. In the liberal view, what makes human beings incommensurably valuable is the human mind, with its capacity for self-consciousness and agency; yet it’s hard to maintain the insight that every human being, the ones we encounter as well as the billions we do not, has specific memories, personal meanings, and ever-changing life projects. Perspective taking is hard. We have a hard time absorbing the motivations and thinking styles of the characters in a short novel, never mind War and Peace, let alone in all of Russia. Taken seriously, liberalism is exhausting. The illiberal view — that certain people are basically interchangeable — is so much easier. Social life would be so much simpler if all you needed to know about people were a few salient characteristics (e.g., race, gender, partisanship) to understand everything important about them.

Second, the diversity of human desires and practices is offensive to the sensibility of purity. People eating those foods, having sex in those ways, making such ridiculous sounds when they talk, smelling so badly — all that evokes potential disgust. How can people who behave in those ways be considered dignified? “Almost anything goes” seems morally offensive. The impulse for purity leads people to withdraw the attribution of dignity to other human beings, as well as to avoid encounters with them, which in turn makes it harder to grasp how they create meaning in their lives.

Third, the moral demands of liberalism produce a guilty conscience. If human beings are incommensurably valuable, one should always treat people with respect, as ends and not means, and as you would have them treat you. But who can pull that off? It’s commonplace to get angry and behave unfairly with the people one encounters, and willfully put out of mind the needs of those one does not. Religious traditions offer salves for moral failures like these, including rituals that commingle human with divine being, and experiences of grace and spiritual purification. Experiencing oneself as part of a larger Design and being seen by an Immortal Being alleviate the guilt of moral failure. And they can explain why human beings should be treated as incommensurably valuable in the first place, can redeem people when they fail to live up to moral demands, and motivate them to try again. Non-theistic explanations of human dignity are, of course, available (and I find some of them attractive and more scientifically grounded than religious accounts), but for many people non-theistic liberalism can feel lonely and unsatisfying. Liberalism, to them, is an endless guilt trip — inexhaustible moral demands without mercy, no route to being being made whole again. They react; they say, Screw it, I’ve had enough. I believe this is part of the explanation for why people defiantly, ostentatiously refuse to lower carbon emissions, or wear a mask to fight coronavirus.

Fourth, because liberalism is rare in human history and counter-intuitive in the ways I’ve tried to describe, its survival depends on social norms; and liberal social norms are fading. The horrors of the Second World War led to a realization that the world required a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948. That Declaration, along with associated beliefs and practices, set the stage for waves of liberal democratization, decolonization, and constitutionalism in the succeeding decades. But the generation that lived through that War and developed the foundational liberal norms has nearly left us. Public leaders and internet trolls now express once unacceptable views shamelessly. The so-called War on Terror, in the first decade of this century, accelerated the decline of liberal social norms, as legally sanctioned torture and indefinite, extra-judicial detentions excused state violations of human rights worldwide and inspired media and entertainment, such as the television show 24, that glamorized torture.

In characterizing  illiberalism as “ordinary,” I am not suggesting illiberalism is inevitable, let alone desirable. The recent fading of the liberal moral ideal is, for me, tragic, and potentially catastrophic. But I think making the liberal vision attractive and appealing is a permanent task, and urgently requires renewed dedication, the first step of which is grasping the challenges liberals face.