Liberalism: The curious history and relevance of a vital idea (Book Review)

Title: Liberalism – A Very Short Introduction; Author: Michael Freeden; Publisher: Oxford University Press; Pages: 160; Price: Rs.225

No other political or social belief has ever been so proudly owned to or so savagely disparaged by both conservatives and radicals, aspired to or misappropriated as much as liberalism. But what is it, what are its principles, is it synonymous with democracy, can it and nationalism co-exist, and how is it related to neo-liberalism?

As current events – both domestic and international – show, these issues are quite relevant for our time, and liberalism, “one of most central and pervasive political theories and ideologies” and whose “history carries a crucial heritage of civilized thinking, of political practice, and of philosophical-ethical creativity”, “whose diverse currents gave borne some of the most important achievements of the human spirit”, is needed more than ever.

Taking us through its complex history, varying characteristics, and profound problems is Michael Freeden, a professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham, emeritus professor of politics at Oxford and “Britain’s leading authority on the subject”.

The first thing to understand, he says, is that “there is no single unambiguous thing called liberalism” as “all the liberalisms that have existed, and that exist, select – deliberately and unconsciously – certain items from an accumulated and crowded liberal repertoire and leave others out….”

Complicating the plot is that it, though deriving from a “European set of beliefs”, can be found on “very different points of the political spectrum” there – left of centre in Britain but right of centre in France and Germany, while in Scandinavia, “many liberal ideas have been disseminated under the heading of social democracy, while what is labelled liberalism there has frequently been linked to elitist or middle class individualism”.

On the other hand, while there may be agreement on what its features are – seven core concepts are identified as liberty, rationality, individuality, progress, sociability, the general interest and limited and accountable power – there is often disagreement over which is the most important or should be accorded primacy.

But Freeden adroitly leads us through the maze while showcasing the significance, by a three-pronged examination of it as a history, philosophy and ideology, through five temporal layers of its concepts and objectives which have interacted and influenced each other or have been expanded or curtailed in the subsequent layers or stages.

Telling also is its fairly recent – and slightly uneasy – relationship with democracy, which only dates back to the mid-19th century. And this was because “up to that point liberals were wary about what they believed were two dangerous features of democracy” – firstly that it “could develop into a tyranny of the majority, thus merely replacing the older despotisms of minorities wielded by kings and aristocrats with new ones” and secondly, “given the abysmal state of education of the population at large, it could perpetuate mediocre rule”.

Sounds familiar?

And then its relation with nationalism which is “often expressed in a strident emotional voice, appearing to prefer the aims of the nation over those of its individual members” and in extreme manifestations, displaying “aggression towards other nations and ethnic groups”, being obsessed with “myths about ‘its glorious pasts’,” and developing “leadership cults”. But, as Freeden notes, there have been milder, more humane forms that have taken cue from liberalism.

There is much more to ponder over and learn in this slim volume – one of the latest installments in this portable but informative series dwelling on almost every facet of the human condition and the universe – from accounting to laws of thermodynamics, from plants to planets and from Alexander the Great to Nelson Mandela.

(07.04.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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