Relevance of liberals

2015-09-07T23:12:46+05:00 Marvi Sirmed

Last week Amir Rana, a friend and Op-Ed contributor to a major news paper, wrote an interesting piece about the liberals, their relevance and their competitors. While the debate is important, it is also essential to highlight multiple problems with his analysis and less careful use of political science terms.

He begins with a wide brushstroke claiming there are no distinctive shades of liberalism in Pakistan. One would like to test the claim by looking at definition of liberalism and its application on Pakistan’s political compass.

Liberalism, as per Conrad Russel, is a political philosophy based on the concepts of freedom and equality. Liberals are of at least three broader shades, economic, political and social liberals. The political liberals emphasize constitutionally-limited representative democracy and civilian supremacy. The economic liberals (neoliberals) advocate economic liberalization, privatization, fiscal austerity, free trade, reduction in government spending, strong anti-corruption regimes and strengthening the role of private sector in the economy. The social liberals might or might not support neoliberalism. They might even reject political liberalism in favour of more realistic concept of realpolitik while upholding individual liberties and equality.

This might put liberals at center, center left and center right on the political spectrum depending upon which shade of liberalism they follow. There are liberal authoritarians at the right-of-center supporting a greater state authority. An overwhelming majority of urban middle class liberals in Pakistan display this shade.

On the left of the center would be libertarian liberals who would challenge the state’s authority in governing economic as well as religion’s role in social life. They would be strong proponents of individual rights and believe in re-arranging the social inequalities in favor of the disadvantaged classes. On the civil-military balance right-of-the-center liberals incline towards the uniform. The centrist liberals believe in some degree of social equality, freedom and elements of hierarchy. They would oppose political upheavals and significant shifts either towards left or right.

Leaving aside other more nuanced ‘sectarian’ lines within the liberal schools of thought, the broader shades described above might be employed to testify Rana’s analysis of Pakistani liberalism. His ‘liberal’ can favour liberalization of trade and economic policies and may include ‘everyone who is not extremist’. His claim that the liberals “do not follow any particular ideology or philosophy on the basis of which they could be described as a cult” sounds a bit out of line too. If you do not follow an ideology, you can’t be described with a term grounded in certain political ideology.

Liberalism by definition is anathematic to following a ‘cult’ because the very philosophy of liberalism stands on challenging the authority. Authority of religion and of the state beyond certain level that is necessary for universal application of rule of law and accountability. If you are a liberal, you won’t support a cult. Else, you would automatically be ejected from the ambit of liberalism.

Then comes the claim that those competing the liberals are not ‘right wingers’. Here three different terms are used in single sentence hinting at, may be, a purported overlap among them – right wingers, conservatives, forces of darkness. The political use of the term right (and left) wings dates back to the French Revolution when in the legislative assembly, the Estates General (états généraux), the anti-monarchists and the monarchists would occupy the seats on the left and the right sides respectively. The term ‘left wingers’ thus started being used for those who supported social equality and opposed social hierarchy, inequalities and oppressive authority. The right constituted those who accepted some forms of social stratification and inequalities as natural or inevitable, defending it on the basis of religion, tradition or culture. Thus the right wingers, contrary to what my friend Amir Rana believes, would certainly be at the opposite side of what the liberals espouse.

The third lexis that he uses is ‘forces of darkness’. If general definition of the ‘Right’ is to be considered, it might not overlap with forces-of-darkness. But the kind of examples are given, describe them as darkness more than as the ‘right’. Militant organizations established by the state to further its regional and strategic agenda might not come under a legitimate political philosophy of ‘right wing’. The worst is when these militants are described as ‘pragmatists’.

More than a political philosophy, pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that is inclined to define the process of thought as a tool for problem solving and action. A pragmatist would be a political thinker who approaches things realistically, based on practical considerations rather than always looking for theoretical and idealistic explanations.

Difficult? In simple terms, it is apples and oranges to compare the right wingers or even the conservatives with the pragmatists because being pragmatist is not equivalent to having certain political ideology. You can be liberal and be pragmatic. You can be ultra-right winger and still be pragmatic.

Now, let’s see who is being labelled as ‘pragmatist’. The leaders of militant organizations like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (instead of LeT, he is using its purified version, i.e., Jamaat ud Dawa), Harkatul Mujahedeen and Ansar ul Ummah are described as ‘pragmatists’. All of these are militant, terrorist organizations established and nurtured by the state for different purposes.

That brings us to the debate of whether the end should always justify the means. If yes, then these militants – elevated by my friend as ‘pragmatists’ – might at certain level be legitimized if that is the intention of the article. If no, these remain illicit tools national security states normally employ for achieving expansionist or other strategic goals. Doesn’t make them legitimate or ‘pragmatists’.

It is entirely another thing whether liberals and leftists need to improve their intellectual quality. Looking at Pakistan’s political prism, the liberal ideologues – whichever political party or social group they belong to – are conspicuous by their qualitative representation in the intellectual equation. On the right side of the center we only have either the militants or the opportunists who would mindlessly regurgitate whatever the establishment would ask them to.

There are no Maudoodis left at the legitimate right. On the other hand, we still have quite a few Pervez Hoodbhoys, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqas, Asma Jahangirs, I. A. Rehmans, Raza Rabbanis, Aitzaz Ahsans and scores of others on the liberal side. We have Abid Hassan Mantos, Taimur Rehmans, Asim Sajjad Akhtars and Harris Khaliques on the left side. We have Imtiaz Alams, Najam Sethis and Ejaz Haiders standing upright at the center, still depicting different shades.

It’s the right that needs help, my friend. Liberal ideologues might be few in number and might not have popular appeal that a right winger might seem to have. That is so because the right winger has as powerful and invincible tools as religion that they would use invariably to their advantage because religion has always had central place in the lives of the masses.

This said, liberals Will still be relevant in any polity at any time of the history because they are the sole challengers of status quo (not in the PTI sense of course). Pakistani establishment and the intellectuals are not doing any favour to Pakistan’s collective sensibility by shunning and discrediting them.

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