Readers of Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit will no doubt be familiar with the popular mortification of any political force that was perceived to be communist. This Red fear persisted during the 1950s and early-1960s when the disavowal of fascism was replaced by the fear of the global designs of international communism controlled by sinister men in Moscow.
The degree to which the tables have been turned in the world that came into existence in the aftermath of the anti-Vietnam war protests is remarkable. With the passing away of the age of deference, the intellectual consensus has shifted quite dramatically to the Left. While there may still be American segregationists and doddering British colonels in the Shires who persist with labelling everything they dislike as ‘communist’, in the more beautiful world of the arts, academia and media, the curling of the lips and the inevitable sneer is reserved for the ‘right-wing’. It is not merely that the ‘Right’ is considered to be authoritarian, anti-democratic and defenders of inequality and privilege, the crucial distinction between democratic conservatism and fascism is often conveniently obliterated.
The number of governments with a self-perception of being socialist may be insignificant: the prefix, ‘liberal’, is more often than not favoured by those who try to maintain an intellectual distance from market economics. Yet, throughout much of the democratic world, not least the Anglosphere, the intellectual discourse is dominated by the same types who boisterously celebrated the death of Margaret Thatcher and who seek to exclude Israel from the civilized world. The cocktail of incomprehensible post-modernism, radical feminism, alternative sexuality and state-funded welfarism has proved both heady and addictive. It has contributed immeasurably in edging out traditional values and common decencies from the centre of the frame.
The ability of the ‘liberal’ fringe to punch above its weight is worthy of some respect. Ronald Reagan, it hardly bears retelling, was one of the most popular and iconic American presidents of the 20th century. The man who nudged an already crumbling ‘evil empire’ to its final doom, he, along with Thatcher in Britain, was the architect of radical conservatism — a force that reshaped ‘right-wing’ politics and made it eminently electable. A formidable communicator who rekindled American pride and extricated the country from its post-Vietnam depression, Reagan will be richly honoured by posterity. What is striking, however, is that throughout the most creative phases of his political career, he was relentlessly targeted by a smug, liberal establishment. For those who care to remember, the admirers of Chairman Mao, Che Guevara and Noam Chomsky quite successfully caricatured Reagan as either something straight out of a Hollywood B-movie or a polarizing figure. This depiction may not have cut ice with American voters, but it did blot out Reagan’s legacy from succeeding generations of liberal-arts graduates throughout the world.
Indeed, the temptation to view mainstream, non-doctrinaire politicians as inherently stupid has proved irresistible. The Conservative Party in Britain was invariably tagged as the ‘stupid party’ by a generation that pretended it would not fight for king and country. Figures such as Stanley Baldwin in Britain and Sir Robert Menzies in Australia were dull symbols of reassurance to their countrymen, but to the ‘progressive’ intellectuals they were stuffed shirts, unable to see beyond their own limited experience.
Menzies, in fact, is an interesting figure whose political career coincided with that of a flashy leader — Jawaharlal Nehru. The Australian was primarily responsible for shaping an Australian identity which, while linked to the values of the ‘mother country’, was also markedly different. In what has subsequently been described as the “The Forgotten People” speech of 1942, Menzies suggested that “the real life of the nation” was to “be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who…see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race.”
Reading the speech seven decades later may indeed prompt a great yawn and unfavourable comparisons with the dashing style of India’s first prime minister. Nehruvians would, in fact, be absolutely horrified by the sheer gumption of putting the romantic socialist who spoke with as much passion on Egypt and Indonesia, as he did on five year plans, besides a stodgy, non-cosmopolitan figure from the old Dominions. Yet, assessed in terms of their respective legacies, Menzies does not come out in an unflattering light. The unglamorous Australian laid the foundations of his country’s subsequent prosperity whereas Nehru’s was a case of lofty ideals, poor delivery and umpteen missed opportunities. Nehru, like many of his third-world contemporaries, imagined he was swimming with the tide of history and dismantling an old world centred on domination and iniquity. Menzies, on the other hand, was clearly on the side of a declining Empire and a brash America. But, unfortunately for Nehru, the flow of history didn’t turn out the way he imagined.
Somewhere along the way, people tired of experiments and the new regimentation and fell back on time-tested themes: the nation, the community and the family. By the turn of the new century, Nehru was perceived as the founder of a political dynasty blessed with a fierce sense of entitlement while the less-remembered Menzies has earned a modest place in history as the man who forged the central pillar on which modern Australia rests.
The purpose of this comparison isn’t aimed at belittling Nehru or invoking a man who is barely commemorated in Australia today. If anything, the study of two very different leaders should induce a note of caution about both following political fashions blindly and accepting the judgments of ‘progressive’ and liberal intellectuals as gospel. In the passionate political debates that have gripped India since the 1980s, India’s ‘tenured’ intellectuals in academia have been forthright in their denunciation of ‘vulgar’ market forces and have barely concealed their aesthetic misgivings of a middle class that makes up with brashness what it lacks in polish.
In recent months, this repudiation of what is quaintly called neo-liberal economics has been combined with a visceral targeting of the reinvented symbols of traditional — and particularly Hindu — culture. Like their preference for subtitled black-and-white movies and the austerities of the shortage economy that was conceived by all of India’s most brilliant economists, India’s beleaguered ‘progressives’ are in a state of permanent cussedness.
In recent months, they appear to have a new mission in opposing the swelling ranks of the belligerent Narendra Modi army. Reduced to bare essentials and shorn of rhetorical flourishes, the opposition is based on a twin set of fears. The first is the all-important fear of exclusion from an unfamiliar dispensation. The Congress took exceptional care to accommodate ‘progressive’ and ‘secular’ intellectuals in bodies that disseminated a quasi-official state ideology. A regime change promises potential relegation to the fringes.
Secondly, the assault on the Nehruvian consensus held together by dynasty and cronyism also threatens a significant shift in power equations from the regulators to the generators of wealth. The possible shift of the State from being the controller of people’s lives to becoming a facilitator of impulses generated by communities and society has the potential of breaking the mould of intellectualism in India. In Britain, Thatcher destroyed the clout of a trade union that had become an extra-constitutional veto on successive governments. On his part, Reagan undermined the east-coast liberals by nurturing a counter-establishment that has created alternative institutions and, in effect, made the policy establishment more diverse. Both sets of changes were fiercely resisted and debunked with the same colourful phrases that are being mouthed in India.
Underneath the indignant intellectualism is actually an old-fashioned battle for loaves and fishes.