The prevailing liberal consensus has failed. By this I mean the ideas, visions, plans for the future held by the leading liberal politicians and intellectuals in many countries – my writing so far has only focused on India, the UK, and the US – have come to nothing. Within their own terms, within the presuppositions that they are committed to; they have no idea what more they can do to win elections. Winning elections to govern more sympathetically than conservative parties has been their main claim to legitimacy against left critiques.
The quickly diminishing leading liberal party in India, the Indian National Congress, is committed to dynasty rule that has automatically, and rightly, ruled out its credibility amongst most of the electorate. Ed Miliband’s Labour tried to square the circle of offering economic competence, technocratic verbiage (‘predistribution’ matches ‘trumped up trickle down’ for rhetorical futility), and anti-immigrant sentiment to find that more or less the same package was more slickly, and believably, sold by the Tories. Clinton’s slick, data-driven campaign lost handily to a man who can’t finish a sentence. Why?
“So if someone tells us it is just to give to each what he is owed, and understands by this that a just man should harm his enemies and benefit his friends, the one who says it is not wise. I mean, what he says is not true. For it has become clear to us that it is never just to harm anyone.” Plato, Rep. I. 335e1-5
Amidst the Facebook maelstrom that accompanied the rather thoughtful and sharply precise letter sent by Dean Ellison of the University of Chicago, it was little-remarked that Plato’s Republic – the cornerstone of the Western political-philosophical tradition, a formative text for many undergraduates and professors here – begins with the violent establishment of an intellectual safe space. Indeed, Plato’s larger dialogical-philosophical project can be read as a thorough, culture-defining attempt to think through, to dramatise and vividly stage for his theatre-obsessed polis the simple question: what makes for a good conversation about the truth? What makes a conversation real? Where is it that conversations come to an end? Why do they do so? In what kind of spaces do we feel free to think? With what kinds of interlocutors can we feel out the good? What jokes, stories, poems, songs, and images do we tell each other as we try to describe to one another the indescribable truth? What compels us to talk to one another about the things that matter most? What compels us to keep silent?