Bear with me as I first identify a few abstract thoughts and then seek to operationalise them. You will see they all come together in the end.
Devil’s bargains don’t come cheap. The reason why people either opt for or tolerate them is that there is a visible delay between actions and their consequences. But when push comes to shove, that delay is no picnic either, and this promised interval of serenity passes in no time and as a tense calm at first due to its internal inconsistencies and then as the sense of imminent doom grips your mind. The devil, in this case, is alluring Elizabeth Hurley giving Brendan Fraser seven wishes in exchange for his soul, which, spoiler alert, one by one ends in one big disaster after another. The bargainer in this bargain is like a deer caught in headlights. It knows what’s coming. Johan Galtung would call it negative peace just because of a visible absence of violence.
History’s worst victims are not usually quick on the uptake. Go through the history of Nazi Germany, and you will be surprised by two things. Politicians thinking that they could manage even puppeteer Hitler. And Jews who initially believed that this evil did not pose any existential threat to their existence. We all know what came next. To bring down system chaos needs only one tiny little foothold. This is the story that plays out over and over. Sometimes you see women working for Daesh. Sometimes you see Muslims voting for BJP and Trump.
Liberalism around the world is counting its final days. And the name of its most likely assassin? Ideology. In today’s polarised world, where both-sidism has become the gold standard of objectivity, a fact is often obscured by loud debates. That liberalism in its purest form is not an ideology but an absence of it. Want proof? Let’s look at its three key ingredients: democracy, secularism and respect for a citizen’s liberties. The idea of democracy stems from relativism. When the truth is treated as the blind men’s elephant, and it is conceded that no one has a monopoly on absolute truth, then and only then do you decide to diffuse power and include more people in decision-making. Secularism takes the matter one step further and builds a dam between the divine and the mundane because history has taught us that an ascendant church is usually the first one to take your liberties from you, and often at least at the start, you go along with its plan to control your life willingly. And in the end, civil liberties. Could there be a better way to preserve your freedoms than to ensure that all dominant forces around you remain out of your hair and, for the most part, you are allowed to make your decisions for yourself? Forget the noise. I know there are many on the liberal side, too, who want to sell it as an ideology. And then you have the current neo-liberal staff at the IMF and the World Bank who, like a slow boiling frog, do not realise what is coming for them and keep undermining the liberal order around the world. Focus on the signal. Liberalism is not an ideology, it is the defining characteristic of most post-Westphalian state apparatuses, and it is dying. Savvy?
The reason ideology has been able to stage a nigh-global coup against liberalism around the world owes itself to many factors. The myopia of states around the world. Political expediency. Incompetence and misguided ambitions of some in the liberal class. The rise of a reactionary religious class. Fanatics of every faith are the same, after all. The rise of a billionaire class around the world that sees itself as larger than and often more benign than the state itself. Your proverbial Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians of the governmental bureaucracy. Don’t get me started on this self-proclaimed good intent. You don’t become a billionaire just by being nice to people. In this age of technological marvels, I am amenable to the idea of one-hit wonders where even one invention can earn you a billion or two. But it is the plurality of billions that should ring the bell. To lead a happy life many times over, a human would need a few hundred million dollars. And that is a very generous interpretation of a happy life. If you find yourself amassing more wealth than an accidental billion or two, you should know you have a lust for wealth and the wealth that has to be acquired at any cost. At any cost.
But the real betrayal has come from the state apparatus worldwide. To make you pay for their mistakes, states need you to stay in a perpetual state of fear. You saw that when after the fall of the USSR, the world was declared unipolar and political pundits around the world started predicting the imminent decline of the nation-states. You saw a self-proclaimed liberal, Samuel Huntington, going to the hyper-conservative American Enterprise Institute and delivering a lecture on the coming clash of civilisations. I think Ken Booth had his number when he accused him of speaking power to truth.
But after 9/11, you saw how the liberal order lost its way. First, it got stuck in Afghanistan, and then instead of finishing the job and leaving, Bush Junior took America and allies into a trap in Iraq. We are still paying for those excesses as that ill-advised misadventure broke the seals of hell. Today the West, the birthplace of liberalism, is facing its worst crisis as far-right ideologues manage to pervert every noble cause and use it as ammunition. Freedom of speech now means uttering racist things on air. Children’s rights now mean restricting women’s bodily autonomy in order to save fetuses and subjecting society to transphobia. The devil’s bargain between the products of liberalism like democracy, modern state free press and reactionary ideologues is complete. The decline of the nation-state is assured if not by the hands of globalisation, then by radicalism, billionaires or even technology. You cannot cheat on what is inevitable.
In the Islamic Republic, a pitched battle is being fought between ideologues who want the country to become a living enactment of a combination of officially sanctioned textbooks of Mutalia Pakistan (Pakistan Studies) and Islamiat and those who think that the country’s survival comes before any ideology. From the Supreme Court to Zaman Park, this war is everywhere. So far, the country is losing.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2023