Visiting Africa and Asia in the 1960s, Conor Cruise O’Brien discovered that many people in former colonies were ‘sickened by the word “liberalism”’. They saw it as an ‘ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs’. O’Brien – ‘incurably liberal’ himself (at least in this early phase of his career) – was dismayed. He couldn’t understand why liberalism had come to be seen as an ‘ideology of the rich, the elevation into universal values of the codes which favoured the emergence, and favour the continuance, of capitalist society’. This seemed to him too harsh a verdict on a set of ideas and dispositions that appeared to promote democratic government, constitutionalism, the rule of law, a minimal state, property rights, self-regulating markets and the empowerment of the autonomous rational individual.
Liberal ideas in the West had emerged in a variety of political and economic settings, in both Europe and North America. They originated in the Reformation’s stress on individual responsibility, and were shaped to fit the mould of the market freedoms that capitalism would need if it was to thrive (the right to private property and free labour, freedom from state regulation and taxation). They did not seem particularly liberal to the peoples subjugated by British, French and American imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Contradictions and elisions haunted the rhetoric of liberalism from the beginning. ‘How is it,’ Samuel Johnson asked about secession-minded American colonists, ‘that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ John Stuart Mill credited India’s free-trading British overlords with benign liberal intentions towards a people self-evidently incapable of self-rule. ‘Despotism,’ he wrote, ‘is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.’ Alexis de Tocqueville, by contrast, felt no need of the ingratiating moral mask; the French colonial project in Algeria was a glorious enterprise, a vital part of French nation-building after decades of political turmoil.
It wasn’t only the entwined history of liberalism and imperialism that in the 1960s made many Asians and Africans suspect American and European liberals of being ‘false friends’. As O’Brien admitted, during the Cold War many Western liberals – such as those who were against imposing sanctions on South Africa – upheld the most illiberal forms of anti-communism. Theorists who promoted free enterprise and equal rights as a formula for prosperity that all new nations could adopt often came from countries with long histories of economic protectionism and institutionalised racism. The new postcolonial nations had their own alternatives to Western liberalism. Even non-communist countries such as India and South Korea put in place systems of government based on a mixture of central planning and market intervention. Raymond Aron, worrying about the appeal of communism in Asia in the 1950s, suggested that non-liberal policies and institutions appealed to many state-builders in Asia because it was clear to them that liberal methods in politics and economics were doomed to fail.
The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 emboldened the ‘bland fanatics of Western civilisation’, as the resolutely anti-communist Reinhold Niebuhr called them, ‘who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence’. It wasn’t too difficult for Cold War liberalism, defined and deformed by its ideological battle with communism, to reincarnate itself as neoliberalism. More than one influential Western commentator in the 1990s and early 2000s outlined the new institutional framework within which latecomers to the modern world, without the benefits of slave ownership and colonialism, could achieve the virtues of individual liberty. Thomas Friedman’s recommendations to the world’s stragglers included the ‘values of hard work, thrift, honesty, patience and tenacity’, as well as ‘export-oriented free market strategies based on privatisation of state companies, deregulation of financial markets, currency adjustments, foreign direct investment, shrinking subsidies, lowering protectionist tariff barriers, and introduction of more flexible labour laws’. The financial crisis of 2008 redirected Friedman’s attention to the manifold problems of rising inequality, debt and the shrinking middle class in the US. Liberalism is deeply implicated in the crisis, as the path to it was laid by free market ideologues who demanded more liberty and less regulation from the state as elected politicians removed all restraints on corporate greed. Unlike Edmund Fawcett, a former Economist journalist who seems aware of its crisis of credibility, Alan Ryan and Larry Siedentop continue to uphold liberalism as a universal ideology to which all political progress has been leading. ‘The only morally acceptable form of democracy’, Ryan writes, is ‘liberal democracy’, and liberalism gives ‘the ordinary person a degree of intellectual, spiritual and occupational freedom the ancient world never dreamed of’. Siedentop is convinced that ‘we in the West’ must ‘shape the conversation of mankind’, but that we must first understand ‘the moral depth of our own tradition’.
The suspicion that Ryan and Siedentop are working with anachronistic assumptions – derived from a sanguine 19th-century philosophy of history and progress – is deepened by their failure even to mention the current challengers in the West to liberalism and liberal democracy: the racist Republican right in America and quasi-fascist movements across Western Europe. The political landscape elsewhere, from Xi Jinping’s China to Evo Morales’s Bolivia, from Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to Thailand’s monarchy-backed military despotism, features a variety of political forms, social movements and political mobilisations, and looks further from Western liberalism than ever. Representative democracy and global capitalism were supposed to work hand in hand to usher barbarian peoples into a future of prosperity and stability, but have turned out to be deeply antagonistic to each other even in India, which Western liberal democrats had long cherished as their most diligent apprentice in the East.
A universal bellicosity confirms Santayana’s suspicion that ‘liberalism has merely cleared a field in which every soul and every corporate interest may fight with every other for domination.’ Siedentop acknowledges this reality only in his assertion that ‘we are in a competition of beliefs’ with Chinese-style capitalism and Islam, which ‘offends some of our deepest intuitions’. This is ‘a strange and disturbing moment in Western history’, but only because Europeans ‘have lost touch with their own moral intuitions’. Americans understand that ‘liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity,’ but Europeans don’t, with potentially ruinous consequences: Muslims, for instance, are ‘frequently encouraged to look forward to replacing the laws of the nation state with sharia “law”’, when secularism, ‘Europe’s noblest achievement’, ‘should be its primary contribution to the creation of a world order’.
In Democracy in Europe (2000), Siedentop endorsed pluralism – ‘a competition of values and institutions’ – as ‘the defining characteristic of European civilisation’ and proposed, optimistically, the creation of a European super-state on the federal model of the United States. The European Union is now unravelling politically and economically, and Siedentop appears to seek comfort in the identity politics of the elite – based on the hoary notion of a West shaped by Christianity – that even such guardians of laïcité as Nicolas Sarkozy have expediently embraced. Inconvenient facts such as the growth of Christian fundamentalism in America can be explained away as a ‘reaction to the threat of radical Islam’.
Convinced that ‘moral beliefs’ have given a clear overall ‘direction’ to Western history, Siedentop mentions capitalism only once in Inventing the Individual, while critics of the liberal tradition in the West – including Marx, Burckhardt, Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt – are almost completely ignored. Ryan and Fawcett offer a more capacious account of liberalism, but are just as indifferent to mankind’s many other conversations with itself, especially those held outside the West. ‘Political thought as we understand it began in Athens,’ Ryan asserts in the serenely pedagogical ‘Great Books’ style of the early 20th century; the hundreds of pages of lucid exposition that follow show no awareness of Chanakya, Mencius, Ashoka, al-Ghazali or of traditions of political thought older than Greece’s. Ryan mentions Islamic philosophy only to traduce it by dwelling on such fundamentalist agitators as Sayyid Qutb, whose shrill anti-Westernism became, after 9/11, the lens through which self-styled defenders of the liberal-democratic West like Martin Amis chose to view Islam. In this version of Western liberalism, it seems enough to posit the defence of individual liberty as the highest task of politics, and then dismiss all other political traditions as illiberal, or even fanatical.
A less emollient history of Western liberalism emerges from recent scholarship on 19th and early 20th-century Asia, where liberal ideas originating in the West were resisted, appropriated, interpreted and transformed. In Asia, notions of the autonomous individual, minimal government and the invisible hand of the market did not grow out of the Reformation or the needs of an expansionist capitalism. In India, China and Japan, the state or the national community – rather than self-motivated individuals – were expected to generate political, economic and social transformation. In the wake of Western imperialism, these societies felt obliged to replicate every process and institution that appeared to have made the West omnipotent and wealthy: secularisation; nationalism or a sense of national identity; a centralised bureaucracy and an army capable of protecting society from internal and external security challenges; a division of labour between political, social and economic realms; and popular participation in politics. But catching up with the West seemed impossible without a strong state. Liberalism seemed attractive largely because it promised to advance the urgent project of state-led modernisation.
Colonialism, and the Western-style pedagogy it introduced, did expose a large number of educated people in Asia to the post-Enlightenment bourgeois notions of individual freedom and autonomy. The growing self-consciousness of this elite helped create Asia’s modern art, literature and philosophy, and individualist ideas sparked a quest – in colonial Calcutta as much as in Meiji Tokyo – to redefine the self and its relation to the collective and the state. But liberal individualism that did not stress the role of community and society in the formation of the moral self was generally not acceptable. ‘The valuation of the liberal individual in India,’ the late Christopher Bayly wrote in Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (2012), was ‘impregnated with the idea of sharing, generosity and compassion … dramatised by tropes from the Indian classics, the Vedanta and particularly the Bhagavad Gita.’
Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the clearest exponent of this view, building on an already strong critique of Western liberalism that had emerged in Bengal. By the late 19th century, India’s British rulers had replaced violent appropriation and plunder by more subtle forms of oppression and control. Heavy taxation and export policies were introduced as part of the imperial bonanza of secure property rights and the rule of law that had replaced arbitrary oriental despotism. Many Bengali readers of Mill shared his conviction that British rule offered Indians the most reliable path to civilisation and modernity. Others took a dimmer view of the acquisitive Westerners, who in the words of the Hindu revivalist Swami Vivekananda were ‘dependent on material things, grabbing other people’s land and wealth by hook or crook … the body their self, its appetites their only concern’. In Tilak’s assessment, both self-interest and the utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ belonged to a crassly materialist conception of the world, and offered no guide to ethical action, let alone happiness or contentment. He defined individual liberty in otherworldly terms, positing moksha, liberation from material attachments, as life’s ultimate goal. Liberalism in this version was a system of duties and obligations: ethical conduct, not rational self-interest, came first.
In promulgating an idea of moral freedom and individual rights that had little to do with Mill’s conception of progress, Gandhi, too, proposed a new idea of political selfhood. True civilisation (or Sudharo), he wrote in Hind Swaraj, is ‘that mode of conduct by which man does his duty. Performance of duty is the observance of morality. To observe morality is to discipline our mind and our senses.’ Many other members of an upper-caste Hindu elite upheld a superior ideal of personal and national culture against the utilitarian obsessions of British imperialists and the commercialism of a rising Indian capitalist bourgeoisie. There could be no easy transition from their ideal of self-purification to ‘possessive individualism’ of the European kind. In any case, as Bayly points out, any such transition would be constrained by ‘the weight of Hindu and Muslim tradition, Indian familial and caste relations, the self-abnegating interpretation of Hindu devotionalism and the colonial context more broadly’. Even sympathetic readers of Mill, protoliberals such as M.G. Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Dadabhai Naoroji, were pushed by the unavoidable facts of deindustrialisation and widespread impoverishment into economic nationalism by the end of the 19th century. Horrific famines were caused by a fanatical British allegiance to free trade; the great suffering, which the colonial government did little or nothing to alleviate, rendered impossible an Indian liberal argument against government interventions in the market.
Indeed, free trade, accompanied as it was by brute coercion, never had much of a chance in Asia, where the most influential Western economist was Friedrich List, not Adam Smith. List had rejected Smith’s free trade theory as unsuitable for 19th-century conditions of rivalry and inequality between nation states. List had also spotted that laissez-faire economies favoured the trading interests of Britain, which had industrialised before everyone else. Economic nationalism seemed imperative to Asian countries entering – very late in the game – the race to industrial modernity. The Indian mutation of classical liberalism was from the beginning more communitarian, Bayly wrote, ‘more concerned with the fate of society rather than the individual, and more hospitable to the idea of state intervention in the economy’.
The same is true of the reception of liberalism in China, where foreign invasions and civil war meant it was even less likely to be embodied in national institutions. Chinese thinkers such as Liang Qichao and Yan Fu grappled with abstract European notions of the rights-bearing individual against a background of China’s semi-colonisation by Western powers, encroachments on its territory by a rapidly modernising Japan, the crumbling of the old monarchical system with its notion of universal kingship, and the exigencies of nationalism and state-building. As with Tilak and Gandhi’s efforts in India, there were attempts to redefine the self in terms of duties and responsibilities, and to propose new models of social and political community. Laissez-faire was judged incompatible with the Chinese communitarian tradition. And the meaning of the Western liberal concepts adopted by Chinese intellectuals via Meiji Japan were shaped by the cultural assumptions embedded in their language. The Japanese term jiyu, which was derived from the Chinese word ziyou, was the standard translation of ‘liberty’. But the loan word could not be cleansed of the implication of selfishness carried by the Chinese term. ‘Laissez-faire’ became ziyou fangren in Chinese, which also connotes rejection of responsibility for one’s behaviour. Yan Fu (1854-1921), who translated the works of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer, had trouble with such terms as ‘privacy’, ‘taste’, ‘rights’ and ‘legitimate self-interest’; he also struggled with ‘will’, ‘reason’, ‘judgment’ and ‘individual spontaneity’. Yan believed that the West had mastered the art of channelling individual energy into national strength, and was convinced that only a free society and democratic institutions could guarantee a similar outcome for China, but even so he could not break with the Confucian ideal of a non-competitive world in which self-interest is subordinated to social harmony. His ‘liberalism’ did not conceive of individual rights as an end in themselves; rather, in his utilitarian calculation, they were the means to national power and wealth.
Liang Qichao, China’s foremost modern intellectual, also learned about liberalism and democracy from the leading Meiji interpreters of English liberalism, Fukuzawa Yukichi and Katō Hiroyuki. These Japanese liberals tended to see liberty in terms of its contribution to the Meiji project of bunmei kaika (civilisation and enlightenment) rather than in terms of natural, inalienable rights. Advocating a national polity (kokutai) centred on the emperor’s sovereignty, they emphasised the importance of a strong state in an era of foreign imperialism. Liang followed them in stressing the need to cultivate patriotic citizens who would participate in public life. Individual liberties or natural rights were meaningless in a country that was not independent. The important thing was for the citizens of the new China to be of service to the state, and enable it to withstand the power of Western economic imperialism. In Liang’s view, a megalomaniacal businessman like Cecil Rhodes could get away with anything in South Africa because his government backed him. Visiting the US in 1903, Liang feared that American industrial trusts, which he thought more powerful than Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, would soon cross the Pacific to prey on a weak China. To hold its own, China’s agrarian society needed not socialism or free markets but industrial production through capitalist methods, regulated by the state.
Japan, coerced into the international economic order in the middle of the 19th century by the arrival of America’s ‘black ships’, had already embarked on an ambitious programme of state-led modernisation, first to resist and then to catch up with the West. Through the policy of fukoku kyohei (enrich the country and strengthen the military), it hoped to abandon ‘backward’ Asia and join ‘civilised’ Europe. During the civil rights movement of the 1870s, Japan’s liberals espoused negative freedom, upholding individual rights against state power, but they also hoped the powerful nation state would advance individual autonomy. Later, in the Taisho period (1912-26), List-reading liberals wanted the state to implement social welfare policies for the benefit of the working poor: they perceived the inequalities built into modern capitalism, and trusted in the capacity of the state to manage them. They also wanted Japan to enter the international system of competitive imperialism. This drew them into supporting militarism, as the career of the political theorist Yoshino Sakuzō (1878-1933) shows.
In An Imperial Path to Modernity, Jung-sun Ni Han describes how Yoshino first developed an idea of the ‘organic state’ in 1905, at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. Every individual, as he saw it, had to be mobilised for the war effort. He still believed that Japan had to insinuate itself into the Western liberal club. The ideals and institutions of Western Europe had helped facilitate a self-regulating global market with multilateral imperial exchanges. Japan had to fight Russia because it was violating international rules – the Anglo-American framework of open-door imperialism – by trying to create a closed market in Manchuria.
Three years in China and a long stint in Europe brought Yoshino closer to the sources of Western power. Japan, he now saw, lacked the advantages that free-trading Western Europe had accumulated by industrialising and colonising so early: it needed protected markets of its own. China, where all the advanced Western powers already had major stakes, seemed a suitable laboratory for the Japanese experiment in liberal imperialism. Yoshino supported the humiliating Twenty-One Demands for extraterritorial rights and commercial privileges that Japan presented to China in 1915.
In Japan, Yoshino proposed a political system he called minpon-shugi, in which securing the welfare of the people was the purpose of government, and the populace at large participated in the imperial project. As Yoshino saw it, ‘it is absolutely necessary to solidify the nation’s inner strength through popular awakening.’ His scheme, which avoided all notions of popular sovereignty, was directed against oligarchs and bureaucrats indifferent to the population’s general welfare. Further rationalisations were marshalled to fortify the liberal project of progress at home and expansion abroad. Yoshino helped popularise the notion that China, which had neither a centralised government nor a developed industrial economy, wasn’t yet a proper nation state, and needed to be helped up the evolutionary ladder by Japan. (This was the beginning of the idea of regional ‘co-prosperity’ later offered to Japan’s Asian victims during the Second World War.) Yoshino wasn’t advocating a retrograde militarism: he deplored Japanese excesses in China and argued for a more peaceful expansion and consolidation of Japanese interests through local collaboration. He defined Japan’s goals in China with reference to liberal philosophies of progress and development.
Such naive loyalty ‘to the ideas and social forms of the liberal world order’ proved disastrous, first economically then politically, as Mark Metzler recounts in Lever of Empire: The International Gold Standard and the Crisis of Liberalism in Prewar Japan (2006). Japan had joined a global financial system run by Britain before the First World War in order to secure Western capital – and diplomatic approval – for its programme of national expansion. But the rules weren’t set up for the benefit of ‘have-not’ powers. ‘The hegemony of orthodox Anglo-American ideas of economics,’ Metzler writes, ‘helped to keep Japan in chronic recession in the 1920s.’ Japan liberated itself from the system only when it went off the gold standard in 1931 and embraced economic nationalism, reinstating a fully managed currency and comprehensive state controls over trade and industry. ‘Other results of this new course,’ Metzler says, ‘were alienation from the West, withdrawal from the League of Nations and, finally, war with the United States and Britain.’
Laments for a never-found ‘authentic’ liberalism merely point to its contingent nature – in the West as well as the East – and the impossibility of replicating it in adverse socioeconomic conditions. The peculiar varieties of liberal thought in Asia reveal the constraints on the political choices open to most of the world’s population. They also show that the old normative explanations of the rise of liberal-capitalist modernity tend to suppress one of its major enabling factors: imperial domination. Contrary to the claims of its postwar American overlords, Japan’s liberal project was shaped rather than doomed by its acquisition of an empire and its absorption of the transnational norms of imperialism along with the rhetoric of progress and development. Its intellectual and political leaders echoed the 19th-century European rhetoric of liberalism according to which civilised Europeans brought progress to uncivilised societies, using violence and coercion whenever necessary. Yoshino merely provided a Japanese variation on this ‘progressivism’ when he justified the abrogation of Chinese sovereignty. His real counterpart, however, is not Mill, who was after all the theoriser of a rich, established empire, but Tocqueville, for whom Britain was both rival and model – a country that had raced ahead of its peers in the quest for virtue and glory.
Tocqueville developed his enthusiasm for the colonisation of North Africa after arriving at similar conclusions to Yoshino’s: that the growth of a stable and liberal democracy at home might require the exploitation of societies abroad; and that principles of equality and self-determination for conquered peoples would have to be suspended. Unlike English liberals, who sustained a self-serving myth of benevolent empire, Tocqueville allowed himself no illusions about the need for violence:
I have often heard men in France whom I respect, but with whom I do not agree, find it wrong that we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women and children. These, in my view, are unfortunate necessities, but ones to which any people who want to wage war on the Arabs are obliged to submit.
Japanese liberals as well as militarists felt ‘obliged to submit’ to such necessities during Japan’s savage assault on China in the 1930s. Unfortunately for them, the global race for surplus value and resources, which had underpinned liberalism at home in the West, had already produced its ultimate winners. Liberalism failed in Japan because the country did not already have the power and wealth of the imperial nation state working in its favour; and it was always extremely fragile because, as Raymond Aron put it in The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), nowhere in the West, ‘during the long years when industrial populations were growing rapidly, factory chimneys looming up over the suburbs and railways and bridges being constructed, were personal liberties, universal suffrage and the parliamentary system combined’. The modern state in the West was constructed during the decades when ‘there were autocratic regimes in which universal suffrage was combined with the absolute power of a single man; there were parliamentary regimes in which the suffrage was restricted and the assembly aristocratic; or there were constitutional monarchies.’
Postwar Asians seemed to have learned these secrets of Western power better than prewar Japanese liberals. Individualism, laissez-faire economics and a fundamental distrust of state power were discarded everywhere else in Asia in the rush to build and consolidate a strong national buffer against the liberal empires of the West. Confronted with the imperatives of modernisation, most Asian nation states chose protectionist economies and political institutions that put national unity and order before individual rights. Successful economic modernisers, such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, claimed in the 1990s that ‘Asian values’ of social cohesion, thrift and foresight had achieved prosperity more speedily and safely than liberal individualism.
Even in India, the Asian country most receptive to British political nostrums, liberalism ‘did not lead on directly’ to democratic government, as Bayly put it: ‘until very late, Indian liberals worried about the rapid extension of the franchise.’ The left-leaning leaders of the Congress party had begun to recognise by the 1930s that it needed a programme of economic development to attract the peasantry and urban working classes. Nehru institutionalised state initiatives in many areas of public life after assuming power in 1947. The state still has prescriptive powers in the running of the economy, despite two decades of liberalisation. India’s impeccably liberal constitution has not produced a liberal political culture. On the contrary, a mass politics based on caste and religious solidarities, in which particular groups rather than individuals are the bearers of rights, undermined the liberal vision of secular, self-interested and rational citizens. The electoral triumph of Narendra Modi, and the collapse of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, has infused fresh life into the old Hindu nationalist project of fabricating a modern subject that is assertively Indian in its religious-cultural practices and moral values.
Japan became an American protectorate after the war, with a parliamentary system, and was enlisted in a liberal-capitalist order centred on the United States. But its turn to economic nationalism in the early 1930s was never reversed. Japan receives less foreign direct investment as a proportion of its GDP than North Korea, and its economic system today is more closed and centrally organised than it was in the 1910s and 1920s.
But it is China that poses the biggest challenge to Anglo-Americans still hoping to shape the conversation of mankind. Chinese Communists systematically overhauled the body politic in order to command loyalty from the people, crushing all individual challenges to the often arbitrary power of the centralised state. Mao’s heirs, who allowed China’s citizens more room for economic initiative, did not break with the imperatives Liang Qichao had identified: to mobilise China’s resources to make it truly autonomous and secure, and to postpone the expansion of individual freedoms. Today, despite extensive marketisation, the state perches on the commanding heights of the globalised economy, encouraging state-owned enterprises and maintaining control of strategic industries.
‘Development is the only hard truth,’ Deng said. ‘If we do not develop, then we will be bullied.’ Speaking of the ‘China Dream’, Xi Jinping asserts the same imperatives of national unity, strength and pride against the need for broad democratic reform. The many micro-freedoms – to consume and travel – increasingly made available to the middle classes help stave off challenges to the authority of the state. Beijing’s rhetoric of social welfare still has many more takers than the free market prescriptions of the country’s besieged liberals. Invoking Mao one moment and Confucius the next, for the sake of ideological legitimacy, China’s rulers seem no less self-serving than anyone else. But they are not wholly unpersuasive when they present liberalism as an unaffordable plaything of rich Westerners: the elevation into universal values of codes that long favoured a tiny minority, and are unlikely to survive the rise of everyone else.