Privileged as I am, I grew up with a certain image of Indian politics – policy-centric, market-centric, business-centric. However, in March 2014, sitting in the US and trying to make sense of Indian politics from afar, I came across Thomas Crowley’s pieces that explained the relationship between the Modi government’s liberal economic policies (read: pro-capital/anti-labour) and its cultural and religious agenda. His writing provided a perspective that I wasn’t getting from most of the people I knew back home. This was a far more dynamic perspective; one that concerned itself with organising and activism, power and structural oppression, Dalits, Muslims, women, students, unions and solidarity. This was real leftist politics.
I don’t mean to imply that Crowley’s work radicalised me — or that it will radicalise you. What it does do, however, is provide a view of Indian politics that stands in stark contrast to the ghoulish right-wing politics of your everyday Modi-bhakt and the insipid politics of social media and upper-class living rooms that claim to embody the values of the left.
It is the practitioners of this latter form of hollow politics that I am referring to as ‘liberals’.
Who are these liberals? They are, for the most part, people who claim some sort of virtuous high ground while favouring market-based solutions and the individual over the collective. They relegate ethical and moral questions to the realms of culture and consumption and refuse to acknowledge the structural forces of oppression that are the foundation of late capitalism. They are the people who support the Me Too movement on their social media pages but ignore the students at JNU who are protesting against the very real institutional sexism and misogyny of their university administration.
These liberals are the ‘citizens of the world’ who care about the UN, World Bank and Gates Foundation, but not about the 50,000 farmers who marched from Nashik to Mumbai last month. They are the proud (and condescending) investors in ‘green businesses’ and organic food – and believe they can ethically buy themselves out of near-inevitable environmental catastrophe. They are the people who own and run businesses that use ethics as a marketing strategy but offer unlivable wages to their lower-level employees. They are critics of radical change, supporters of oppressive institutions of power, and believers in the benevolent forces of demand and supply.
In the Indian context, no one contrasts liberal and leftist politics more beautifully than Arundhati Roy. Criticising the movement surrounding Anna Hazare’s Jan Lok Pal bill in 2011 for example, Roy questioned the effectiveness of a draconian Lok Pal that was born of a narrow-minded liberal conception of corruption. She argued:
“Whether it works or not depends on how we view corruption. Is corruption just a matter of legality, of financial irregularity and bribery, or is it the currency of a social transaction in an egregiously unequal society, in which power continues to be concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller minority?”
Roy demonstrates how well-intentioned top-down liberal politics can be misguided and even harmful – insofar as the creation of a powerful Lok Pal could grow an already bloated and oppressive state apparatus. Roy highlights how a liberal political outlook doesn’t just ignore the voices of the oppressed, it suppresses them.
Roy shows us how people are oppressed – and their protests are ignored – well within the framework of the law. Furthermore, she demonstrates how easy it is to critique the idea of “corruption” and feel good about it while ignoring the corruption that is inherent to the economic and social organisation of our country.
There is no greater argument for leftist politics – and indictment of liberal politics – than the state of the environment and global environmental policy in the 21st century. In her latest book, No is Not Enough, Naomi Klein shrewdly points out how conservatives in the US understand something about climate change that liberals do not – that acknowledging its existence is to acknowledge the failures of a pro-market, anti-regulation, anti-public worldview.
Klein argues that overwhelming evidence suggests that climate change “can only be dealt with through collective action that sharply curtails the behaviour of corporations.” While most liberals love to make fun of conservatives and claim to care about climate change, they implicitly accept the market-based worldview of their conservative counterparts. They continue to argue that the only ‘practical solutions’ to climate change are corporate social responsibility departments, organic food, plastic bans and – most classist of all –population control. Like conservatives, these liberals are unwilling to accept that corporations and businesses are the greatest threat to the environment. They refuse to accept that effectively combating climate change involves accepting a radical assertion – that our economic system is failing us on every front. (For a crash course on the birth (and utter failure) of market-based approaches to environmental reform, consider Kate Aranoff’s wonderful piece in Jacobin.)
So make no mistake, liberals don’t care about oppression or the environment any more than their right-wing counterparts. Don’t let hollow claims about ‘practical solutions’ stop you from calling out liberal hypocrisy and fighting the injustices of modern capitalist society. If there’s something to be learned from Hillary Clinton’s loss and Jeremy Corbyn’s strides, it’s that lesser-evilism and corporate liberalism have no place on the left.
Coming back to India, Crowley’s writing doesn’t just represent a more radical idea of Indian politics, it also acknowledges the imperfections of these movements – the tensions between student activists and Dalit activists, for example. I too acknowledge the imperfections of many of the movements and people I look up to and mention in this article.
I do not mean to imply that the road to a better world – socialism, or whatever it looks like – will be easy to navigate. I do mean to make clear, however, what it means to be invested in that world. So, the next time you hear some vapid diatribe about ethical businesses and market-based solutions, don’t be afraid to shut it down. Ask people about how they arrived at their ‘practical solutions’ or what else they tried first. Ask them whether it’s a coincidence that it is businessmen and not environmentalists, social scientists or grass-roots activists that are the biggest advocates for their solutions.
Don’t be charmed by the comfort of hollow liberal politics. Recognise that class struggle is real. Recognise the resilience of working-class people, women, Muslims and Dalits. Recognise that solidarity through shared struggle is the only way forward.
Rothin Datta is a 23-year-old writer and aspiring academic living in Mumbai. He tweets @filthy_chai