Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 12, 2020
Political illiberalism: A new beast in town

The liberal political theory had developed during the 19th century through the writings of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hill Green and many others. The core principle of political liberalism was individual freedom. To elaborate it a little more, it can be said to have meant free and fair elections, rule of law and widespread respect for institutions safeguarding the former two. The same century also saw the rise of Marxism. If liberty was at the core of liberalism, equality was at the core of Marxism. For the liberal democratic political theory the problem was how to reconcile the claims of the free market economy with the claim of the whole mass of individuals to some form of equality. Writing in the 1970s, political philosopher, C. B. Macpherson, found liberal political theory along with market economy were being rejected in two thirds of the world ‘either in the name of Marxism or in the name of Rousseauian populist general will theory’.<1> He visualized a “post-liberal” dawn wherein there would be a marriage between political liberalism and Marxism.

When Macpherson was writing this book globalization had not yet started and only a few signs of ethnic movements were visible. The next three decades of globalization and the growth of new technologies coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China completely changed the entire context of our thought and existence. The pull of globalization generated a counter-pull of resurgent, ethnicity-based regressive nationalism. Soviet collapse marked the loss of the Marxist dream while China’s economic surge appeared to promise that there were alternative paths to prosperity other than through liberal democracy. Thus, the new century found space for a quite different kind of post-liberalism than what was envisaged by Macpherson which can be better called political illiberalism.

Some of the factors that made this space for political illiberalism possible were: the erosion of the conventional difference between right, centre and left as party programmes largely converged; class as an identifier of social and ideological position became a passe’; growth of new information and communications technologies facilitated direct virtual exchanges between citizens at almost no cost but also eroded the gatekeeping function of traditional media and offered unlimited opportunities for information manipulation and political surveillance; demand for global movement of labour paralleling global movement of capital generated backlash in the form of paranoia over migration of all kinds which was further reinforced by the growth of ethnic nationalism; enhanced diffusion of knowledge about political events across national borders encouraged comparison without contextual knowledge.<2>

This political illiberalism does not disavow democracy; rather it proposes the idea of an illiberal democracy, however bizarre it may sound. As the economic dominance of the West has come to decline so has the attraction for its culture and its political ideas. Even in Western Europe, the cradle of liberal democracy, illiberal, authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements have grown strong.<3> Democracy has backslidden in Turkey, Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand, and the Philippines. Eastern European countries, which grabbed liberal democracy through strong civil society activitism,<4> post liberation from the Soviet Union, have also gone back to illiberal mode and have become vocal advocates of illiberal democracy. Victor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, robustly put the idea in 2014: “A democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it can still be a democracy.” To remain globally competitive, “we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society.”<5> This is as clear a defence of illiberal democracy as it could be.

As Krastev shows, it is difficult to explain the rise of populist illiberalism in terms of economic crises: if Orban won in 2010 when the Hungarian economy was going through rough patches, it was not true of Poland which experienced ‘fastest growing economy in Europe between 2007 and 2017’ nor of populist developments in Czech or Slovak republics. Neither is the growth of illiberalism restricted to Eastern Europe, as we have already mentioned above. Even a fairly long-time and stable democracy like India, or the first republican democracy of modern era, the United States, is fast moving towards illiberal form, if they have not moved already with officially sponsored and encouraged public outcry against liberals and leftists.

Widely admitted democratic recession in the present century is not leading to coups and military dictatorships, or the rise of autocrats overthrowing the democratic process and constitutions or suspension of political parties. While it may take a while to understand fully the wellsprings of present wave of illiberalism, it is possible to infer some of the most apparent and widely shared features (there could be more insidious ones not readily apparent) of its operation. Illiberal leaders and parties, once they are elected to power, use their legislative majorities to bring about changes in the electoral system, to subvert the process of checks and balances by using executive power to subdue independence of other critical and gatekeeping institutions like the judiciary or the election commission or central investigation bureau, to reinterpret the mode of application of rule of law, rewrite history, deepen polarization in society, delegitimize opposition by labeling it anti-national, denounce all protests by dubbing the protesters as inspired by some ‘enemy country’ around, promote xenophobic nationalism and establish monopoly claim to represent the nation, create and thrive on public paranoia in seeing an “enemy” in minorities and migrants. Krastev finds many of these in operation in Eastern Europe, but in fact variations of these are widely practised in all populist, illiberal democracies including the US and  India (it needs to be noted that India has been downgraded even as a “flawed democracy” by ten points in the Economist’s Democracy Index 2019).  In its emphasis on duty rather than rights and collective freedom instead of individual freedom, such regimes uphold the Rousseauian concept of “forcing to be free”<6> or even the fascist dogma or its softer versions like in the thoughts of F. H. Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet.<7>

The problem with this present illiberalism is that it is indeed happening within the minimal parameters of democracy. It is, of course, true that all the benefits we can expect from a possible democracy,<8> like guaranteed fundamental rights and a broad range of personal freedoms, fostering a high degree of political equality, helping people to protect their fundamental interests and values, guaranteeing the rights and protection of minorities etc., diminish or disappear fast under such regimes and a nanny state emerges; yet, at least a few of the essential democratic characteristics like elections and voting, and rule by majority principle may still be present for these regimes to qualify as ‘democratic’. Such illiberalisms become “flawed” democracies or even “hybrid” regimes, but democracies nonetheless--however emaciated, and get the opportunity to subvert the real democratic substance from within the framework of democracy.

Since this is so, it would not be easy to predict the demise of illiberal democracy. Although a populist leader may promote it and bring it to power, it may not be entirely dependent on her/him for its continuance as it would likely have an organized party behind it. And organizing a popular movement to oust it would be nearly impossible for its minimal democratic character (not being outright fascist) will allow it to create confusion in the ranks of its opponents. Thus, illiberal democracy raises a crucial question: is democracy susceptible to implosion or internal subversion, i.e., the essence may be lost even while it would be difficult to call it a full-fledged non-democracy? No wonder to the philosophers of ancient Greece like Socrates and Plato democracy was suspect.

Perhaps the only way to break out of this gridlock would be to keep close and constant contact with the grassroots keeping them informed of the acts of commission and omission of the party in power which in fact needs to be in the form of educating the public through ‘conscientization’ pedagogy of the Brazilian educationist and philosopher Paulo Friere. <9> It indeed will be a long haul. It will require patience and a dedicated party as well as broad unity among the repressed and ridiculed opposition. Since change has to come through elections, a close watch over voter enrolment and election mechanism could be game changer.


<1> C. B. Macpherson, Democratic Theory: essays in retrieval (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 183-4.

<2> Some of these points have been made by Philippe C. Schmitter, ‘Real-Existing’ Democracy and Its Discontents: Sources, Conditions, Causes, Symptoms& Prospects (European University Institute, unpublished, nd;) and Thomas Carothers, review of Sheri Berman, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From Ancient Regime to the Present Day (oup2019) in Foreign Affairs (May-June 2019) 177ff.

<3> Ronald Inglehart,“The Age of Insecurity: Can Democracy Save Itself?” Foreign Affairs, May-June 2018.

<4> Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty (London: Penguin, 1994), 126. However, Gellner did not fail to notice the uncertainties implicit in powerful ethnic passions.

<5> Cited in Ivan Krastev, “Eastern Europe’s Illiberal Revolution,” Foreign Affairs, May-June 2018, 49-59.

<6> Philippe C. Schmitter, op cit.

<7> F. H. Bradely, My Station and Its Duties: An Address Delivered to the London Ethical Society, April 23, 1893. International Journal of Ethics, October 1893 (4:1)1-17; https://archive.org/stream/jstor-2375708/2375708_djvu.txt also, Dina Babushkina, “Bradley’s My Station and Its Duties and Its moral (in)significance,” Zeitschrift fur Ethik und Moralphilosopie, October 2019 (2:2), 195-211.

<8> Robert A. Dahl, On Democraty (New Delhi: East West Press, 2001) chs. 4-6.

<9> Paulo Friere,  Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1996/1970).

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