Issue 2/2019 - Illiberal!

The Shallow Roots of Liberalism in Asia

Chua Beng Huat

Political scientist Partha Chatterjee suggests, the “the corpus of writings, principally in English, French and German, that represents what is broadly called liberal thought … has come to enjoy a position of dominance not only within the academy but in general public discourse in all contemporary democracies around the world” (Chatterjee 2011; 2-3). Since the beginning of the Cold War in 1950, the US has been the most vociferous self-appointed champion of spreading liberal-democracy globally. This mission may be said to be embedded in The 1776 American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. The ‘self-evident’ truths include: “the right to speak our minds; the right to worship how and if we wish; the right to peaceably assemble to petition our government; the right to own, buy and sell property and not have it taken without fair compensation; the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures; the right not to be detained by the state without due process; the right to a fair and speedy trial; and the right to make our own determinations, with minimal restrictions, regarding family life and the way we raised our children” (Obama 2006: 86). These rights of individuals have been abstracted as political normative value and, crystalized as ideological individualism.
The claim that liberal freedoms are ‘self-evident’ both universalizes and justifies liberalism as the teleological end point of social political development of all societies, against which all other social political practices would be considered as underdeveloped, backward or deviant, in short ‘illiberal’ (Zakaria 2003; Bell et al. 1995), that have to be rectified, and brought into alignment with the ‘self-evident truths’. Such has been the underlying rationale for American foreign interventions, from the Cold War to the present, into other nations’ business, through a combination of conventional diplomacy, developmental aid and military violence if necessary, to rid the other nations of tyranny and assist them to achieve ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, of at great financial costs and loss of lives. However, with the economic marketization of East Asian socialist nations and the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe in the early and late 1980s, respectively, the American version of liberalism has arguably become globally ideologically hegemonic. The conceptual constellation, ‘liberal-capitalist-democracy’ became conventional political discourse, leading political theorist Francis Fukuyama (1992) to announce its triumph as the ‘end of history’. Yet, this conjugation of the three concepts is clearly of recent history.
American political theorist, Alan Wolfe, suggests, “Any important political theorist of the nineteenth century would have been puzzled by the expression liberal democracy” (Wolfe 1977: 3). This is due to the different understanding of the concept of ‘equality’, an essential and fundamental concept to both liberalism and democracy. Wolfe argues, as individualism is essential to the rationale for the buying and selling of labor power, liberalism is the political philosophy of capitalism, i.e. “all liberal societies are capitalist”. Liberalism thus promotes “equality in the abstract” to enables individuals to engage in ‘equal’ economic exchanges. However, capitalists will fight equality “bitterly in the real world” (ibid: 5), rationalizing real inequalities and social hierarchy as the natural outcome of individual competition. In contrast, “in its historical context, democracy was at one time a fairly thorough anti-capitalist political ideology” (ibid: 4). For democrats, equality implies ‘social justice’ and civil rights which must be protected against “against the excesses of an unfettered, market-driven ethos” (Ong 2006: 2). To achieve a seamless conjugation as liberal-democracy involves much and continuous ideological work of redefining ‘democracy’ as a set of “formal features such as elections, a constitution, and agreed-upon rules of political discourse” and displacing substantive demands of equality and participation. Due to this tension, any “satisfactory theory of American political cultures must acknowledge both the pervasive individualism of American life and the centrality of the communitarian or egalitarian challenge” (Ellis quoted in Williams 1997: 13). However, as political philosopher Dallmayr points out, the debate in America is generally “carried out on the terrain and under the auspices of liberal universalism, with communitarianism playing at best a subsidiary or remedial role” (Dallmayr 1996: 281), without displacing the liberal order (Williamson 1997: 78). As will be discussed below, communitarianism is precisely the ideology which many contemporary East Asian states invoke to both contest the global hegemony of liberalism and open a discursive, if not a practiced, space for a non-liberal electoral democracy.

The Difference that is Asia
Notably even at its most euphoric phase, the triumphal narrative of liberal-democratic capitalism was disrupted by the rise of capitalism in East Asia, whose political leaders regularly espouse anti or non-liberal social values (Fukuyama 1992: 238); way before its current disruption by rising xenophobic and neo-nationalist right-wing politics in liberal democratic Europe and America itself.
Undoubtedly, rapid industrialization and urbanization under global capitalism have loosened social constraints on individuals in East Asia and the individualizing effect is being celebrated as liberating new freedoms (Chua 2000; Zhao 1997; Davis 2005). However, it would be grossly simplistic to equate market-driven, money-making opportunities and consumer sovereignty as the totalizing values of contemporary East Asia. As Aiwha Ong (2006: 12) observes: “While technocrats embrace business agendas and legitimize ideals of human talent and self-enterprise, many ordinary people remain ambivalent and skeptical about market criteria and its assault on collective values and community interest”. Indeed, even the technocratic state planners can be found actively reinventing and formalizing local history, cultural values and practices into different counter discourses to economic liberalism so as to project a different future society. This is symptomatic of the shallow roots of economic liberal individualism, in Asia.
With the exception of Japan, all nation states in Asia are post Second World War minted postcolonial states; even never formally colonized China and Thai Kingdom (Siam) were forced to grant extra-territoriality to foreign powers of Europe, America and Japan. The idea of democracy and its attendant practices are therefore of recent vintage for these post-war, postcolonial nations. As there is no space for to document their different political developments of the different nations, a summary would have to suffice: With the exception of the communist states of China, North Korea and Vietnam, all East Asian nations have attempted to institutionalize electoral democracy upon political independence. However, most attempts failed quickly, bringing in train military backed authoritarian regimes. Soft (Singapore and Malaysia) or hard authoritarian regimes remain in place in Southeast Asia. Since the 1980s, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia have completed transition from military-backed authoritarian regimes to fully elected government with peaceful changes of ruling party but they have not entirely shaken off corruption and nepotism. Overall, one can conclude that all the non-communist countries in East Asia have progressively institutionalized periodic elections of political office holders, although corruption, violence and other forms of tampering with the electoral process continue in several countries. However, ideologically political liberalism is often explicitly rejected in almost all instances for three identifiable reasons.
First, the historical specificities of decolonization and new state formation often stand in the way of democratic government. In many cases, military and political leaders who led the armed decolonization struggle often usurped the power to govern on account that they, having shed blood for the birth of the new nation, automatically have the legitimate right to lead the new nation. In others, the political and economic instabilities of the fledgling elected government became opportunities for military leaders to either directly intervene or to be co-opted by weak elected political leaders to impose emergency rule. Furthermore, indigenous political leaders could legitimately ‘reclaim’ the new nation as ‘homeland’ and deny or relegate non-natives to some form of ‘second class’ citizenship, perpetuating ethnic inequalities and potential conflicts.
Second, the new East Asian states are still very much insecure-objects-in–the-making which continue to tightly embrace their citizens within a bounded ‘national’ space and inscribing upon them a ‘national’ identity, as part of the nation building process. Nationalism remains a vital social political force that affectively hold on their respective peoples. Under such circumstance, liberalism’s ideological injunction for a minimalist state would be anathema to ‘national unity’, which the new nations are struggling to establish and maintain. Finally, as the West is still remembered as ex-colonizers, their political criticisms on the absence of liberal democracy are routinely resisted and countered with particularistic local histories and cultural traditions and that the speed and shape of democratic development should be debated and decided by the local citizens and is no business of the past imperialists. In sum, almost all East Asian nations have explicitly rejected the teleology of liberal democratic capitalism as the universal and ultimate fate of all nations (Rodan 2012).

Communitarianism in the East
Ironically, like the American thinkers who are weary of excessive individualism, in East Asia the ideological rejection of liberal individualism as potentially community-corrosive, also turns to communitarian values that are supposedly drawn from their own historical and cultural resources, as alternative conceptualization of politics and social life. Local, ‘traditional’ ideas and values are recovered/reinvented as ‘indigenous national values’ – gotong royong for Indonesia (Bowen 1986), ‘Asian Values’ for Singapore (Chua 1999), Confucianism for Korea (Lew, Choi and Wang 2011) – to promote the idea of ‘community’, the ‘collective’, the ‘social’, with the family generally held up as the foundational, quintessential social institution, over the individual. These ideological communitarian claims have been subjected to much justifiable criticisms inside and outside the region, as thin veils to hide the economic corruption and authoritarianism of the political leaders who espouse them. Indeed, the co-presence of authoritarianism and communitarianism suggests a ‘tendency’ that should be examined.
One of the responsibilities of elected leaders is to define the national interests. The temptation of the elected to impose and demand adherence from the governed to their self-serving definition of the ‘national’ interests is ever present. In this sense, logically leadership risks authoritarianism. In a democratic society, this risk is contained partially by periodic elections that can remove and replace the authoritarian in power. In new postcolonial nations, political leaders’ tendency towards authoritarianism and corruption had been reinforced by the, above mentioned, presumption of the ‘right’ to govern by the first generation of political leaders who had led anticolonial movements. Being generally educated in colonial metropolitan education institutions, they could proclaim themselves as ‘natural’ leaders, supported by lowly-educated or illiterate masses, during the decolonization process. Unfortunately, the historically necessary has the tendency of being naturalized; necessary leadership turns into paternalism/authoritarianism that ‘infantilizes’ the rest of the population. Paternalistic benevolence turns into authoritarianism when the infantilized governed disobeys and begins to think for themselves. We thus get two possible modes of governance: paternalistic and communitarian when leadership is conscientiously responsible and, conversely, authoritarian and corrupt when malevolent.
Singapore’s long-ruling, single-party dominant, People’s Action Party government stands accused of paternalism/authoritarianism but has persistently make anti-corruption foundational of its political legitimacy. This is an important exception that proves the rule that the concurrence of authoritarianism and corruption is neither logically nor causally inevitable. Analytically, it is therefore necessary to treat authoritarianism, paternalism, communitarianism and corruption as stand-alone ideas and practices that could be brought together in different combinations by different individual leaders or groups, under different historical contextual circumstances. In this sense, the generalized claim that all East Asian cultures are ‘essentially’ communitarian is obviously highly problematic (Kim 1994). Even if communitarianism does find resonance among the majority of East Asian peoples, it is by no means a totalizing sentiment throughout the region. Such claims should be read as ideological attempts to oppose and resist liberal individualism.

Conclusion: Resurrection of the ‘Social’
The Cold War was arguably won by liberal-democratic-capitalism. However, the victory was by no means total. Liberal democracy was first resisted, from the 1980s, by/in East Asian countries, where the rise of capitalism was grounded in different, even anti-liberal, ideological trajectories; specifically, reinvented communitarianism. Sustained economic development in the past half a century has significantly reduced poverty and expanded the middle class. As the first generation of authoritarian national leaders passes from the scene, the ability of subsequent generations of East Asian political leaders to claim moral and intellectual leadership over the governed will face increasing challenges from better educated and equally able individuals, whether as politicians or lay citizens. Indeed, contemporary non-communist East Asian governments have by and large responded to the demand from the progressively better educated citizens for more transparent electoral processes and greater accountability, although the elected governments are still not beyond enacting repressive legislation with due parliamentary process. However, these shifts in balance between the governing and the governed do not automatically signify a desire for liberalism – individual rights, free market and minimal state. Instead, their development history suggests that it is possible to de-link liberalism from capitalism and electoral democracy. The case of Singapore in which ‘communitarianism’ is arguably a re-scripting of the ruling party’s earlier social democracy, is a concrete example of the historical contingent possibility of conceptualizing an electoral democratic polity that is not liberal but one that privileges and practices the social in some important areas of social and political life. If such society are ‘illiberal’, indeed, they are and meant to be.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the extreme economic inequalities and sustained impoverishment of the middle and working classes under neoliberal global capitalism have given rise to two opposing political tendencies that differently disrupt the hegemonic liberal order: the rise of right-way populism in Europe and the US, the very core where liberalism used to thrived and, partly as a push-back to this right-wing turn, the emergence of a call to return to ‘social democracy’ if not ‘socialism’ in the US. I would suggest that this re-emergence of socialist and social democratic discourses in the US resonates with the earlier, and in some places deeper, ideological evocation of communitarianism in East Asia as they draw ideologically sympathetic resonance from wariness with liberal individualism; as communitarianism can be discursively/ideologically re-scripted as a strategic recuperation of the ‘social’ in social democracy. Such resonance suggests that the evocation of the social/the communitarian can and should be de-territorialized from specific reference to Asia, or non-West and refocus on the ‘social’, the ‘collective’ and the ‘community’ to contest the insidiously community-corrosive effects of the excesses of liberal individualism.




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