Monday, September 24, 2012

Igor Markaida - 'I am (a) liberal'

Any attempt at a meaningful explanation of the term 'liberal' requires a great deal of care. The main interpretation of liberalism as 'negative freedom' brought the concept closer to free market ideology, generally pairing it to the ideas of liberal democracy and capitalism. Antagonistic political formats of the twentieth century, like fascism and communism, mixed with anti-colonial (and anti-neocolonial) sentiment, accentuated this relationship further. The limits of the liberal ideals were put to the test. The rise of mass-media driven politics didn't help either, causing complex concepts to lose currency among the myriad messages that the average citizen was (and is) object to on a daily basis.

The fact is that liberals themselves have often shied away from responsibility, looked the other side or passed the reins on to non-liberals when things got tough and their principles did not seemed to provide any answers. On an even darker note, it would be disingenuous to ignore the way in which "freedom of expression" has trumped on someone's "freedom from hunger", the liberal ideal as moral cover to free market abuse. Living on less than a dollar a day makes it a little difficult for one's thoughts to be free from figuring out where the next dollar is going to come from.

But, although many liberals retreated quietly from using the term themselves, there is no denying that Western societies are built on the foundational liberal principles. Even self-proclaimed non-liberals voice their concerns under the protection of these principles. Their influence can be felt also in organized religion and the attitudes of people of faith that have shifted their beliefs to softer positions to the more conciliatory discourse of the ''spiritual'. Although far from resolved, issues that were of great concern to liberals only fifty years ago (such as the rights of women) have increasingly been addressed and interiorized by citizens in these societies. And although we cannot pretend that freedoms and rights are not being abused on a daily basis, it cannot be denied either that they play an important part in every individual's self-narrative.

The difficulty to assess the liberal values and its role in the organization of society only reflects the complexity of today's social and political scenario. Traditional concerns give way to new ones: environment, cultural and ethnic diversity, disability rights, sexual orientation, privacy and intellectual property in a hyper-connected world … the list of challenges grows faster than our ability to confront them. Perhaps the liberal toolset only works at a particular scale. From the ground up, at individual level, the foundational tenets of liberalism still help us position ourselves among those around us, in a harmonious way. But could it be that these tools do not work at a larger, global, political level and we ought to be looking for some sort of post-liberal mechanisms?

Discussion and compromise, a stubbornness in refusing to deal in absolutes and an underlying faith on the potential of human ingenuity are what sets the liberal ideal apart. Liberalism promotes individual contribution to the collective endeavour, as an in-built safeguard against too much state intervention on personal affairs. Legitimacy validated by representation also contributes to a sense of fair play, of equal of opportunities. Individual freedom comes with individual responsibility.

If it aspires to be other than just an illusion, liberalism needs to stop seeing itself as a destination point and rediscover the spirit of struggle, of work-in-progress, inherent to it. It has to recover a tradition of dissent, and appeal to freedom of thought and expression, not only from the state, but also from corporations that monopolize media and public opinion, education, culture … If its principles are to be in any way relevant in the twenty-first century, liberalism has to show that it has the capacity to work within ideological formats other capitalism (as capitalism without liberalism has done in China).

Warts and all, I think I will remain a staunch liberal for a longer while.

Igor Markaida works as a freelance Communications Consultant

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