NOVEMBER 19 — Even with the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) seemingly voted out of office in Poland, those who care about the health of liberal democracy and progressive politics still cannot claim much reprieve. Support for right-wing parties has grown in Europe, and in the United States (US), the spectre of Donald Trump, if not him then an equally radical candidate, still looms over the next US Presidential elections. Leading up to the present conflict, Israel is governed by the “most right-wing” government in its history. In Malaysia, hate speech surges, even with a government that has close to two-thirds majority.
Given that these developments happened under relatively democratic conditions (not due to coups and takeovers), it is fair to ask the question: why are the liberals seemingly on the losing end?
There are many reasons for this, and some of them are structural. But today, I want to point to an issue within the conduct of liberal politics. More specifically, a ‘Roomba’ tendency that one observes. Let me explain.
Politics with an anti-political bent
Liberals often strike others as political people, as in they aren’t afraid to let others know what their political stances are (conservatives less so; hence their voting intentions often evade capturing in polls).
But the way liberals get involved in politics, be it via political parties, NGOs, or think tanks, feels like they are trying to create a condition where they no longer need to be involved in politics.
This is seen in their subscription to mechanical tinkering of laws and regulations (often euphemistically called ‘institutional reforms’) as the end game, instead of investing in mass acculturation projects like many ideologically conservative movements do.
On the other hand, liberals always use the word ‘political will’, but there appears to be this subtle wish for a world where that’s not needed at all.
This affinity toward top-down adjustment so that one can walk away feels like a Roomba treatment of politics, i.e., we set up the vacuum robot, and it will help us clean up the mess. It’s no surprise liberals dominate the technocratic realm but less so the mass discourse.
My point is not that technocratic knowledge isn’t important. But what impedes problem-solving is often not the dearth of knowledge but the lack of coalition-building and an ideological landscape to make reforms happen and ensure they last. For example, see how even electoral reforms now are running against an ethnoreligious exclusivist opposition. Managing these situations requires political acumen, nothing a PhD can produce.
The class appeal of Roomba politics
I suspect the liberal liking of Roomba politics also reflects a kind of class worldview. That is, beneath all this performative expression of care towards politics, many liberals don’t really worry that much, unlike many conservatives who see electoral outcomes as tied to existential stakes (such as the survival of race or religion).
Maybe here’s where the stereotype of the ‘Bangsar bubble’ comes in. The liberals are comfortable enough within the status quo (or have exit options); they aren’t really that worried.
To be sure, this comfort is different from the kind of security enjoyed by proxy of identity; something the conservatives tend to enjoy more in a majoritarian political system such as Malaysia. In these settings, the privileged group is so certain that the system will protect them no matter what that they can afford to care less about the competence of those who govern (unlike liberals, who tend to always favour technocrats).
That is why, despite their conservative leanings, conservatives (a coalition that always has a cross-class makeup) will sometimes go for wild-card candidates like Donald Trump to send a message because they simply don’t think the system will break. It’s a kind of thinking that comes from enjoying institutionalised privilege (even if only symbolically so) that the liberals, who tend to feel like, or side with, the minorities, will never get.
Both liberals and conservatives will say they hate politics, but I suspect liberals are the ones who really want to get off the shift and clock out. And I get it because politics is tiring. Who has the time?
There was this one line from Tony Stark in one of the Avengers movies when he tried to justify to Captain America why he wanted to build suits of armour to protect the world:
“Isn’t that why we fight’? So we get to go home?”
Even Ironman wanted the Roomba to take over. But can we ‘Roomba’ our way out of this?
The Roomba is for the taking
Let’s take the hate speech problem on social media, for example.
The Roomba, in this case, is probably a transparent reporting mechanism so that people can report hate speech/misinformation, and then the authorities can take action. It’s what Internet laws and social media regulations are all about — the things we set up so that we can ‘go home’.
But when you are trying to tackle a hate campaign based on highly organised political movements, what will happen then?
The reporting mechanism will be inundated with mass reporting, most likely against progressive content and minorities. In those cases, social media companies will buckle under the pressure of conservative governments that tend to care less about the interests of minorities.
In other words, it will look like those mass police reporting stunts performed by right-wing activists to pressure the government. If that happens online, the Roomba does not clean up the mess; it merely becomes part of the mess.
To be sure, I am not against a transparent, responsive, and easy-to-navigate reporting system. I am just saying if the goal is to foster and safeguard a respectful, multicultural, and abuse-free civil space, the Roomba mindset isn’t up to it.
No room for autopilot
There is no option where liberals get to claim a kind of aloof neutrality so that they can avoid getting their hands dirty; if they want to win, that is. But the Roomba mindset is also precisely centred on this apolitical claim that liberals merely want the ‘right’ policies in place. Politics is always for the losers.
But the truth is, the moment you walk away, someone else will fill in the vacuum.
To some extent, that’s what happens when the New Malaysia facade collapses after the Sheraton Move. There was this belief in the ‘Ini Kalilah’ mirage and the fantasy that the Roomba would take over. The job was to overturn Barisan Nasional, and the job was done.
But the Roomba did not take over. Extremist voices increasingly did. Even innocuous agendas like ratifying ICERD (no one who studies international law will think the treaty has any teeth in eliminating racism) or organising interfaith programmes have all been stone-walled.
The hard truth is that old conceptions, such as emancipatory politics is about state vs civil society; urbanisation means more support for liberal politics; greater democratisation means more inclusive politics; and more information equals better fact-finding, have all proven to be, at its very best, partially true. At worst, the reverse happens.
Liberals thought by defeating the ancien régime they have ended the great game. But the truth is, the great game has only begun. What they most need now is a game plan they will invest in and stick by, and not a Roomba that takes things out of sight, out of mind.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.