February 13th, 2016
THE key thesis I want to advance in this post is quite simple yet profoundly disrupting: In a hyper-connected society as the one that is rapidly emerging, the liberal idea of freedom as moral autonomy and its political upshot (Political Liberalism) have become impracticable. Right from the get go I want to make clear that I am not passing metaphysical judgment on liberalism; I am just pointing out its practical difficulties against our current background. As I will argue in what follows, liberalism (both moral and political) can only work in an environment where a clear distinction between a private and a public realm can be secured. Such a division is rapidly disintegrating in the era of social networks, the blogosphere and the twitterverse. The emergence of the hyper-public “Netizen” is rendering liberalism obsolete. The current rise of fundamentalism is the most vivid symptom that liberalism, despite all its good intentions, has run its course.
Let me now take a step back and provide some preliminaries. At the core of liberalism resides the powerful idea that human beings should be free to live their lives according to their own beliefs. Liberalism’s central emphasis is, as the name foreshadows, on liberty. To be free, according to the liberal tradition, is to be autonomous, to be able to self-direct one’s own life according to one’s own beliefs. If you start with autonomous individuals, place them in a plural society and build a political system from there you end up with something like Rawls’ Political Liberalism. There are many controversial aspects about Rawls’s political philosophy but its core mantra captures the essence of the liberal ethos: for a political system to be just, it has to remain neutral to its members’ moral and religious beliefs. Any departure from moral neutrality by the state will constitute an intromission and a violation of individual autonomy which is, as already said, the backbone of liberalism.
So far so good; it is difficult not to side with liberalism’s driving motivation that we should all be free to self-direct our moral life as we please and that we should not be coerced by political forces into adopting specific worldviews. The problem, of course, is how to put this into practice. Well, the answer is, it depends. If we consider a society where everyone broadly agrees about moral and religious aspects then political neutrality is not that difficult to achieve as any transgressions of the political into the moral would not effectively violate anyone’s freedom—since resulting policies would reflect our uniform beliefs anyway. But liberalism was not crafted with a ‘morally homogenous’ society in mind; it was crafted as a response to the rupture between the catholic and the protestant worldviews. A philosophical defense of autonomy became necessary only when the potential clash between public policies and individual beliefs started to manifest. Talking about autonomy in a society where everyone believed the same was irrelevant; the emergence of liberalism was a pragmatic response to the advent of moral and religious pluralism.
So there we were, morally and religiously divided but with the need to shape up a peaceful political unit. Coercing everyone into a newly unified ‘moral grand vision’ was now out of the question, as the point of departure was the presumption of our liberty—our inalienable right to autonomously elect our worldview. Liberalism’s brilliance was to take moral and religious diversity as the normal outcome of letting individuals exercise their autonomy. Suddenly, pluralism ceased to be viewed as a corrosive phenomenon that needed to be resisted in the name of a single moral and religious worldview. Instead, pluralism became the mark of freedom, the manifestation of our liberty in action. The defense of pluralism became an end in itself because defending freedom is a worthy end in itself, and so liberalism grew strong.
From a liberal perspective, the core objective of political association became the protection of individual liberty, which in practice meant that political discourse needed to abstain from favoring any particular moral or religious views. To achieve this, morality and religion were evicted from the public arena and transformed into private matters, while the political was transformed into a ‘morally sterilized’ procedural framework. We all know the rest of the story: plural democracies flourished while the defense of autonomy and the craving for freedom remain the main driving forces behind astonishing political transformations as the ones taking place before our eyes in North Africa.
Yet despite all of its advantages, its philosophical merits and its ongoing historical vindication, liberalism’s key political requirement—the need to keep moral and religious matters out of public deliberation—is potentially the source of its own demise. In a world that has interwoven everyone and dramatically transformed the means of global communication, is it possible to keep the moral and the religious out of public deliberation? Can the political remain neutral to the growing voices seeking to impose their own worldviews?
The division between the public and the private which is necessary for liberalism to work was justified on pragmatic grounds as necessary to defend individual liberty and to secure political stability in the face of growing moral and religious diversity. Now, paradoxically, this very division is turning into a source of instability given the interlinked nature of our current society. In an interwoven society there is no realistic sphere for the private to remain truly secluded; everything can cross seamlessly into the public realm and everything is up for social discussion.
As moral and religious issues get increasingly reconnected into the public arena the very practical subsistence of liberalism comes into question. Liberalism’s good intention of securing moral and religious autonomy was only achievable politically through compartmenting society in private moral camps that were not supposed to challenge each other and that were supposed to stay out of political matters. This was a brilliant idea and it worked wonders in plural societies where “moral ghettos” were still easy to establish. But the rise of the internet is propelling the moral world back into the public and the political. The initial consequences of the re-socialization of the moral have been tremendously negative as people grew unaccustomed to discussing or justifying their private beliefs to those with alternative views. The unfortunate result of this unpreparedness has been the steady rise of fundamentalism manifested in growing polarization and increasing unwillingness to engage in dialogue with counterparts one regards as irrational, bigoted and unworthy. Toleration only works as long as the truth of my own view is not challenged by those whom I tolerate, which in political terms requires the subsistence of the private as the realm of the unchallenged. As the private realm evaporates, fundamentalism rises and the whole liberal organization is brought to its knees. And to make matters worse, the advance of fundamentalism seems to be self-perpetuating as the very freedom to belief that liberalism gave us placed us at the mercy of our own private beliefs who grew undisputed and unaccounted for in social discourse for generations. Inadvertently, we all became closeted fundamentalists.
So where do we go from here? Is there any credible strategy for curving the relentless rise of fundamentalism? As I see it, the only way out is to properly reintroduce moral and religious concerns in public discourse, but that cannot be done from within the existing liberal framework—that would be a contradiction in terms as we would be violating liberalism’s imperative of individual liberty and state neutrality. Liberalism scorns the idea of a morally and religiously charged public deliberation process because this can easily turn into a power struggle that trespasses individual autonomy. Liberalism is right in raising this warning, but it is only so because it posits an idea of autonomy that emphasizes the capacity to privately self-impose our own worldview. Moral and religious beliefs are non-negotiable from a liberal perspective precisely because negotiating with them would go against the very idea of autonomy, it would go against my freedom. By tying the idea of freedom with the capacity to privately self-impose a moral framework, liberalism crippled the possibility of public moral deliberation. But if the internet revolution disrupted our capacity to privately self-impose our own worldview, it seems to me that the only way out of this conundrum is to subject our very idea of freedom and autonomy to a thorough review if we are to find a way to stop the rise of fundamentalism.
Paradoxically, while the internet poses a challenge to the liberal exigencies for autonomy it is precisely the internet that offers a way forward to revise our idea of freedom in order to stand against rising fundamentalism. Growing interconnectedness allows us to reach an amplified concept of freedom as what we choose to belief is increasingly assimilated from within a constant awareness of alternative options. What the internet revolution helps us realize is that as much as the public deliberation process is the best way to secure political outcomes, a public deliberation process of ongoing dialogue and exchange is also the best way to construct our beliefs, desires and values. In other words, hyper-connectivity takes us beyond the liberal idea of autonomy as privately constituted and into a new paradigm of socially vetted autonomy. As Kant foresaw, what is important for expanding our autonomy is not the actual content of our beliefs but the process through which we acquire and maintain them. He thought conformity to the universal moral law—the Categorical Imperative—offered such a process; I disagree: only a public deliberation process of ongoing dialogue and open exchange can make us free as the process itself ensures that we are not enslaved by our own private beliefs. With the rise of global interconnection, such a process is at hand.
Summing up, building a successful and peaceful society in the age of interconnected plurality requires a pragmatic reconstruction of our liberal idea of autonomy. To be autonomous today we need to move beyond the liberal dictum of being able to privately select our own worldview—we require more than that as privately justified moral and religious beliefs are nothing but fuel for fundamentalism in an era of growing interlinkages. To be autonomous today we need to subject our formerly private worldviews to an ongoing process of open public deliberation. As the world grows interconnected, we need to go beyond the complacency of liberal private autonomy and regard ourselves as free individuals only when our beliefs have been appropriated through social discussion—when they are viewed as depurated from fundamentalism. In an interconnected world, a freedom that deserves the name has to be socially constituted.