They may appear to have little in common with each other but they do represent a general, unifying thread: fear of the much-hyped new world. Right wingers are against open borders and warm treatment for migrants, while left wingers are opposed to open borders and warm treatment for corporates. Multiculturalism and globalisation are under attack, perhaps in bits and pieces but definitely so. Not just in India but across the globe, only we have been too pre-occupied with the RSS/VHP to notice it. The we are the world agenda which was steadfastly and successfully pushed for so many years by the likes of President Clinton seems to be unravelling, and there are two main reasons for it.
First, there have too many false peddlers of the open society and in fact many of them have only put people off by their arrogance or gratuitous preaching. The end of the cold war provided a fantastic opportunity for liberalism to triumph by displaying its qualities of openness, tolerance, freedom and humanity. But instead, the principles and values enshrined in liberalism got hijacked somewhere along the way by the new elite, with what has seemed to be either uncaring hedonism or contempt.
The new privileged class is made up of lawyers, academics, journalists, brokers and bankers, all those who essentially traffic in information and manipulate words or numbers for a living. The market for their skills is international, hence they are more tied to global concerns rather than with regional, national, or local communities. Christopher Lasch, one of those rare scholars in America respected by both the left and the right, and famous for his bestseller The Culture of Narcissism, warned a long time ago that members of this elite tend to be estranged from their fellow citizens since they have removed themselves from the common life.
American commentator David Brooks wrote a funny and provocative treatise on the new elite, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Bobos are bourgeois bohemians, members of the new information elite who mingle 1960s rebellion with 1980s achievement, making it impossible to tell an espresso-sipping artist from a cappuccino-gulping banker. While the old elite announced marriages on the pages of the New York Times, listing pedigree and connections, an amazing number of todays elite seem to have first met while recovering from marathons or searching for the remnants of Pleistocene man while on archeological digs in Eritrea. Bobos do indeed represent a welcome moderation of ideology, but they also ignore real problems and conflicts in the lives of real people across the real world. Their optimism is hardly shared by common toiling men and women who may have markedly different views on merit, fairness, and equitable distribution of wealth.
The second reason why neo-liberalism has failed is that many modern ideas are in conflict with each other, such as multiculturalism. Now, this is a fine concept in theory, but in its extreme form it becomes the very antithesis of assimilation. Multiculturalism emphasises and promotes differences rather than commonality, group rights over individual rights and humanism. Multicultural promotion in society is perhaps valuable in the tactical sense; minorities need props to their self-esteem and also the time to slowly adjust to their new surroundings. But an extreme form of multicultural separation is destructive since it can and does easily degenerate into tribal chauvinism, segregation, and conflict. The demand for a uniform civil code in India is the right one, but many so-called liberals in India are either too sanctimonious or woolly headed to accept it.
The answers to modern life are not easy, though living in Delhi with an extreme water crisis makes you forget modern life very fast. For all its advantages, the new age of free-flowing ideas, communications and technology may have shrunk our personal space; at least in making communities feel respected, empathised or cared for. Theres a party going on next door, and a large majority feels left out. Hence, the Taliban, the VHP and the Christian Right. One way out is to promote education, and the right kind at that: values instead of theories, conscience over efficiency, humility over vanity or indulgence. In the end, the pen may prove to be bigger than le Pen.
Subhash Agrawal is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors