The Signs of a Dystopian Democracy Are All Around Us

Dystopia is visible everywhere, from the heightened surveillance through CCTVs and Aadhaar, to the constructed fear of citizens seen as ‘foreign’ due to what they eat, watch and wear.

In the wake of demonetisation, we had reasons to think in terms of a dystopian democracy. In the immediate context of the government’s disinvestment plans for Air India, the decreased funding for public universities and the greater attention of the democratic state towards the welfare of the market, we should revisit the idea.

A few months ago, Achille Mbembe, in a particularly despondent mood, declared that “the widening bifurcation of democracy and capital is the new threat to civilisation”. Mbembe is wrong: it is not the bifurcation but the merger of democracy, neoliberal democracy especially, with capital as the new threat. This version of democracy that produces a “new human being … through and within digital technologies and computational media,” as Mbembe put it, is a dystopian one. The new human defined by democratic principles in one way – as a self-determining subject – is in the process of being redefined as a ‘human resource’ and a consumer-citizen within a democratic practice generated by neoliberal and neo-imperial structures of thinking.

When the ‘modern’ constitution of a fledgling democracy meets with a revived ethno-politics and ethno-nationalism that we now see in India, a crisis emerges. Observers have noted a similar state of crisis in countries like South Africa wherein a modern ‘citizen’ coexists with the ‘subject’ of ethno-polities and where the constitution, committed to a certain view of the modern, comes up against social practices that are traditional and deemed dangerous to the modern itself. Such countries seem to have few or no answers to cultural fascisms, vigilanteism born of such fascisms or cultural xenophobia (the South African police force actually created, contrary to its ‘modern’ image, an occult-related crime unit). But this is not sole characteristic of the dystopian democracy.

A dystopian democracy is not simply a gloomy prognosis for a distant future. It is an active dystopia-in-construction, produced by what Mbembe has identified as the “conflation of knowledge, technology and markets,” where “contempt will be extended to anyone who has nothing to sell”. This conflation is first visible in the heightened and ambient surveillance: from CCTV to Aadhaar and smart cities, not to mention the quantum of data collected from individuals, whether in the form of loyalty cards at supermarkets or from ‘Gurujan’ portals for university teachers. It is visible in the spectacle of confession and public spectacles of personal, even private, trauma via reality TV and talk shows. It is further visible in the insistence of ‘industrial linkage’ that public educational institutions are to enforce: effectively reorienting all teaching and research into producing an unthinking, uncritical-minded labour force for the market. The neoliberal spectacles of make-over TV and grooming shows present new modes of governance – albeit in the name of ‘choice’ – by proposing standardised aspirational models for the citizen-consumer, essentially consumers for particular forms of the body but cast as ‘the branded self’. This dystopia where the branded self and the consumer citizen, projected as the aspirational model of citizenry via media and even the state, trump the self-determining citizen-subject, is a realist one.

In the realist dystopia that is contemporary democracy, we begin with the assumption that humans are motivated by fear and selfishness. The state encourages these twin axes of human behaviour. It is the brutishness of the competition born from fear and selfishness due to scarcer public resources that drives civil society and even forms of governance. Civil society is not characterised by peace or old-school ideals and ‘compassionate citizenship’ is eroded. This vision of a dystopian democracy, fuelled by the market and abetted by the state, lays greater emphasis on private success made necessary by increasingly unaffordable public services. If one needs any halfway-to-decent services, whether health or education, one goes to the private service provider, for which one needs more money which in turn demands large private incomes.

Demarcating services around identities, whether in terms of class, religion or economic means, ghettoises and segments the public because the space for the public is intentionally, ruthlessly shrunk. The vulnerable may now be defined as those who no longer have access to public goods – because these have been privatised and made unaffordable – in a dystopian  democracy. They live in ‘utility deserts’. When there is a token public measure offered, its quality is suspect. (Ever wondered why when there exists a ‘right to education’ we have omitted the word ‘quality’ before ‘education’?)

Thus, while we remain a democracy in theory, in practice, the demos itself is segmented into the vulnerable and ghettoised. As early as 2008, commentators noted that the poor who were to be the recipients of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) were the ones excluded from it, rendering them ‘food insecure’ citizens, thus suggesting that the system created to help the vulnerable rendered them helpless.

The democratic state, to return to a different Mbembe, needs to ask: ‘what are the obligations and responsibilities which a democracy requires of its citizens, as much as of its state?’ When the state becomes irrelevant in terms of economic borders in the age of globalisation, it becomes resolutely central when it comes to questions of inclusion and exclusion, note Mbembe and Deborah Posel, of aliens, strangers and foreigners. But the list should also include those who are internally excluded from, say, the Aadhaar regime or free quality public education, and to whom, therefore, the state owes no responsibility.

Two possible forms of the dystopian turn are visible now.

In one form, there is an enhanced emphasis on homogenisation and cultural standardisation in the ‘larger interests of the nation’. This immediately brings to the fore the so-called problem of cultural differences. Ethnic, racial and cultural identities are constitutive of the very humanity of the members of those groups. They are frames within which the members understand and formulate their life-worlds. The experience of puberty, old age, sickness or death – the essentials of the human – is not the same for people of all ethnicities because the frames in which these stages/processes/events are interpreted are culturally determined. The meaning of these processes, therefore, varies for various cultures. Edward Brunner in his essay ‘Experience and its Expression’ noted that expressions frame and make intelligible the experience of individuals and groups. To reject their difference in identities in the name of nationalism, unity or a single identity, therefore, is to terminate a vocabulary for different life-worlds and erase the experience itself. In other words, it makes the members of specific communities sub-human when the frames in which they locate their life-experiences are rejected and violently dismantled.

In another form, dystopian democracy is marked not by the fear of an across-the-border ‘other’, which would be the well-recognised xenophobia of all nationalisms. Rather, it is marked by what can only be thought of, clumsily, as endo-xenophobia, the cultivated and constructed fear of those citizens increasingly seen as ‘foreign’ by virtue of their diet, their taste in sporting teams or their preference for film stars and films of certain nationalities/ethnicities. In a country committed, by law, to a common sense of humanity – or common humanity – and which recognises all citizens as equal before the law, the civil society’s entrenchment, enabled by the state, of cultural differences (such as the ones cited above) as insurmountable barriers, we can see democracy take a dystopian turn.

We see both the above forms at work in India today. Just as a utopia can exist only as a program of action, as an aspirational or speculative narrative, a dystopia too exists in the imagination. The difference is, the readable signs of the imminent dystopia are currently all around us.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.