Capitalism, populism & crisis of liberalism


Interview with Akeel Bilgrami.

Akeel Bilgrami is an Indian philosopher of international eminence and scholarship. He graduated from Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, in 1970 and went to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Thereafter, he moved to the United States and earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1983. He currently holds the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy at Columbia University, New York. Bilgrami was the chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1994 to 1998. He was the director of the Heyman Centre for the Humanities at Columbia from 2004 to 2011 and was the director of Columbia’s South Asian Institute from 2013 to 2016.

Bilgrami’s main intellectual interests are in the philosophy of mind and language, and in political philosophy and moral psychology. His PhD thesis, titled “Meaning as invariance”, was on the subject of the indeterminacy of translation and issues concerning realism. Among his books on the philosophy of language and mind are Belief and Meaning (1992) and Self-Knowledge and Resentment (2006).

His writings in the other central area of his intellectual interests, political philosophy and moral psychology, have significantly influenced and continue to influence the public discourse on politics, ideology, religion, modernity, culture, history, and so on. It is Bilgrami who has exposed and provided high-ranging criticism of liberalism and its limitations as a political ideology in contemporary times. According to Bilgrami, liberalism and liberal politics have got their own limitations and could not save us from the savagery of capital. In this way, he intellectually provokes us to go beyond liberalism and reimagine an alternative political vocabulary. Here his philosophy rejects the ideology of capitalism and envisions an alternative as the way forward for humanity. This alternative is, of course, left centric and socialistic in perspective, and he sympathises with Left politics in his home country and others.

His writings and philosophical ideas on the themes of secularism, modernity, Marxism and Gandhi have produced new perspectives on these subjects and significantly contributed to intellectual debates (see Frontline issues dated March 30 and April 13, 2018). His highly influential essay “Gandhi the philosopher” provides a fresh reading of Mahatma Gandhi, and Bilgrami unearths the integrity in his ideas contrary to the popular notion of their inconsistency and fragmentation. As a philosopher, Bilgrami, despite being an atheist, does not completely reject the scope of religion in playing a critically instructive role in our times. He says: “Religion is not primarily a matter of belief and doctrine but about the sense of community and shared values that it can sometimes provide in contexts where other forms of solidarity—such as a strong labour movement—are missing, and it sometimes provides a moral perspective for a humane politic as it did in the liberation theology movement in Central America.”

Bilgrami’s attempt to provide a fresh look at modernity is also noteworthy. Pinpointing the basic weaknesses and Eurocentric nature of modernity and its domination by liberal politics, Bilgrami seeks to find a theoretical framework by which one can go past the constriction of possibilities that liberalism and the merely regulatory constraints of social democracy have forced on modern societies.

Bilgrami is influenced by thinkers such as Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Donald Davidson and Noam Chomsky. His important works in this area include a vast number of essays and the books Secularism, Identity and Enchantment (2014), Marx, Gandhi and Modernity (2014) and Democratic Culture (2011).

In this long interview with Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M., Akeel Bilgrami speaks at length on the concepts of populism, liberalism, fascism, postmodernism and post-truth.

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