The cold-blooded murder of crusading Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh has got me brooding about history, and modern philosophy’s greatest analyst of history, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Lankesh’s murder was horrifying, but not very surprising. She was an outspoken critic of the right-wing populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently dominates Indian politics, and defended the insurgent left-wing Naxalite movement. She was also a fierce advocate for Dalit rights, and for other disadvantaged groups in Indian society. She had plenty of enemies, particularly among supporters of the ruling regime.
Moreover, India has a history of political violence, with some of its most famous and influential leaders dying at the hands of assassins. And Lankesh’s killing echoes recent murders of prominent Indian rationalists Malleshappa Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar, who offended traditional sensibilities. In a country so large, and with so many axes of conflict, it is hardly surprising that a prominent and controversial journalist like Lankesh fell into the crosshairs.
Finally, the murder occurs at a time when liberalism—which makes freedom of speech and press a paramount value—is in retreat globally. Right-wing populists from Vladimir Putin to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vigorously suppress or control the media, and see their popularity grow rather than shrink, while the American President’s attacks on our own country’s press draw alarmed condemnation internationally, but only feed his partisans’ growing conviction that the national press is a threat to American greatness rather than a central pillar thereof.
But in another sense, that international context is precisely the puzzle that requires explanation. Why should right-wing populism and hostility to a free press be burgeoning, and liberalism be in retreat, all across the globe? What could account for that synchronization?
Ask why India should be ruled by a right-wing populist party in the first place, and you will get a variety of answers. The Congress Party ruled for so many years after independence that it became corrupt, and overly identified with a single ruling family, and an Anglophone elite, leaving an opening for another party to take its place. Hindu nationalism provided a basis for unity across class lines, while also mobilizing the dominant religious group against a poorer minority tainted by association with a hostile foreign power. And a pro-business orientation enabled the party to deliver relatively rapid economic growth facilitated by globalization and a decline in energy prices. A variety of contingent factors worked together to make the BJP India’s dominant party.
How similar are those factors to the drivers of right-wing populism elsewhere, however? In Europe and America, the rise of right-wing populism has been fueled not by a rising traditional middle class, but by economic stagnation in the heartland, and a squeezing of the middle class generally as well as by rapid demographic change wrought by mass immigration combined with low birthrates among the native born, neither of which are predominant factors in India. Russia’s right-wing populism was a response to abrupt and precipitous decline in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to a certain extent has involved the rehabilitation of the former Communist elite. And in China, which has cracked down harder on free speech than at any time since the 1970s, the turn toward nationalism was engineered by the regime as a way to shore up support for a party that has ruled uninterrupted since 1949, accompanied by a campaign against corruption facilitated by that party’s own elites.
Restrictive attitudes toward speech, meanwhile, are increasingly popular not only among rural traditionalists, but also in precisely the precincts where one would otherwise expect liberalism to be predominant. It’s not just “coddled” American college students who seemingly can’t abide hearing anything critical. Neither can the driven Chinese college students supposedly eating those American students’ lunches. The more one looks at how global politics is evolving, the more it seems like illiberalism and populist nationalism are the hammer being applied to a diverse array of nails. It’s almost like there’s something in the air.
Which is why I’m brooding on Hegel.
To vastly oversimplify one of the titans of modern philosophy, Hegel saw history as the unfolding of an idea through the process of dialectic. In effect, history can be read like an argument. At a particular point in time, a society’s ethos expresses its idea of the good through the structure of social relations in that society, but this idea in effect calls forth its own antithesis, a contrary idea. It is the conflict between that produces a synthesis that moves society forward to the next stage of political development.
For Hegel, “forward” meant towards a more mature conception of freedom. So while his understanding of history’s structure was far more nuanced than the “Whiggish” tales of ever-increasing enlightenment, it remained fundamentally progressive. And operating within that framework, an idea antithetical to the fundamental conception of a civilization that gains traction because of the inevitably flawed and incomplete nature of that own society’s ethos cannot simply be rejected, but must ultimately be transcended through synthesis, and the working out of a new idea through a new social structure.
Illiberalism and right-wing populism feel an awful lot like such an antithesis today, conjured up in response to the liberal triumph of 1989-1991 and the era of globalization that followed. As that idea was a global one, so its anthesis has emerged globally, in societies with wildly differing cultures, social structures, and levels of economic and political development. Liberals from Tempe to Tamil Nadu are rightly frightened of the possibility that the forces of darkness have gained the upper hand in much of the world, and that precisely their illiberalism, and the popularization of hostility to the press, makes it that much easier for them to keep power however poorly they exercise it.
If history is an argument as Hegel saw it, though, then that antithesis cannot simply be defeated. It must be transcended by a new ethos and a new social structure expressing that ethos that obviates the previous conflict, and births a new era with a more mature conception of freedom.
It sometimes feels like the liberal spirit is fighting for its very life, and that more and more liberal heroes like Lankesh are losing their lives in that very fight. Can anyone in that position dream of transcendence? The good news, if Hegel’s understanding of history is right, is that she can; the bad news is that she must.
Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.