How We Came to Suspect the Disquiet in Our Democracy

We can see how, in many parts of the world, conversation itself has come to be regarded as conspiracy.

Presiding over a bail plea in a case of sedition, a judge of the Delhi high court has observed that the sedition law cannot be used to quieten disquiet in society.

This admirable and salutary judicial observation goes to the heart of much that now informs the philosophy of state in India, and is intimately related to the career of capitalism from the early Nehruvian phase to the present moment.

It is germane to recall that the success of capital in demolishing earlier forms of state was grounded in the claim that the new forces of production and the class that now patronised them spoke not for the interests of a narrow segment of society but for the citizen at large.

It was this claim of inclusivity that made early capitalism a progressive event in world history. The advent and development of the new idea of state came to accept that for the democratic state to flourish, it required a creative modus vivendi with society based on the rule of equitable laws in order to draw a reasoned voluntary consent to the formulation and operation of state policies through a systemic and institutionalised culture of dialogue. Much of this was premised in the work of the French social thinkers of the 18th century that came to be characterised as the Enlightenment.

The notion of a ‘civil society’ thus emerged. ‘Civil society’ comprised citizens whose competence in reflecting on social issues broadly would form a coeval branch of democratic governance, since a democratic state would best take hold through a free exchange of views and critiques bearing on policies that affected ‘we the people’.

However, as capital came to be more and more centralised in order to answer its inherent tendency to form monopolies for the maximisation of profits, the progressive phase of the definition of state began to yield to the urge to centralise political and social control over the populace, and to concentrate effective state power in fewer and fewer hands.

Of this historical trajectory of capital, Karl Marx wrote: “The executive of the modern state is nothing more than a committee for the management of the economic affairs of the bourgeoisie.”

And, just after the end of the second world war, Horkheimer and Adorno argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) “how, despite the roseate stipulations of the Enlightenment, modern capitalism, through technological sophistication, was leading to oppressive, managerial forms of control that had inexorably led the progressive ideas of the bourgeois revolutions towards fascism and totalitarianism. In effect, a movement away from open and democratic forms of concern and towards governance through the coercive operations of a distanced managerial elite, bolstered by new, incomprehensible forms of technology and a coercive state-apparatus — together at the service of a new industrialism of relentless exploitation of resources, human and natural, wherever capital now needed to operate for this predatory mission.”

This formulation, we may concede, was to prophetically foresee the principle thrust of the Washington Consensus of 1990 which inaugurated the global and unfettered movement of finance as ‘hot money’ flows across national boundaries, leading to the atrophy of ‘real economies’ and to the growth of a global elite. Income inequalities came to multiply exponentially, till, for example, in the world, two ‘democracies’ of America and India, less than a percentage point of the population came to own more than 70% of national wealth.

Also read: Wealth of Indian Billionaires Rose by Over a Third During the COVID-19 Lockdown

That this historical occurrence would inevitably yield massive social unrest is obvious. As it is equally obvious that such unrest would not be dealt with according to the pristine stipulations of Enlightenment Reason but through subterfuge, propaganda, and when these failed, the ever-reliable state-apparatus that remains sworn to be loyal to the state. Is it any wonder that America which has 5% of the world’s population also has 25% of the world’s imprisoned inmates – the bulk of them comprising blacks, Hispanics, Muslims etc.?  Or that likewise, in India, the bulk of the inmates in jails should be low-caste Hindus, Muslims, Adivasis etc., and pretty few upper caste or rich citizens?

Socialist thinkers like Saint Simon had, of course, much earlier suggested how the reasoned premises of the Enlightenment would be frustrated by the refusal of the new dominant forces to allow an even-handed operation of the regime of laws that seemed otherwise more egalitarian than what had obtained before. This too we are seeing as a prophetic caution, as Republican laws have come to be more and more instruments of surveillance and deterrent oppression than vehicles of justice. Have we not come to a point where laws, in theory impersonal, have come to be applied even in identical cases and not to the cases but to the faces?

Even when capital sought political legitimation from the electoral process, enhanced only in dribs and drabs in reluctant response to collective struggles of the disempowered, its commitment to democracy would in effect be restricted only to the winning of elections, often by any means at hand, including strategies of ‘voter suppression,’ jettisoning all those norms and philosophical verities that had made democracy an enlightened idea.

At its impatient worst, the regime of capital would begin again to posit theories of state based on ideas of pre-ordained supremacy of one kind or another; race, religion, caste, gender, physical force, even myth would come to be made the bases of the right to govern in an ironic throwback to pre-capitalist ideas that capital had sought to dethrone in its early phase.

Other forms of totalitarianism, ostensibly mortally opposed to capitalism, even while accepting its medial requirement, would also come to parallel the ideological regression mentioned above.

Writing under the looming shadow of Stalinism, the Russian theorist of culture Mikhail Bakhtin would show how democracy had necessarily to be rooted in what he called ‘dialogism’, and how totalitarian states inevitably become monologic in character, as values, concepts, cultural practices are robbed of their inherent plurality and sought to be appropriated into singular definitions endorsed by the state and its agencies. At the extreme point of this regression, all meanings come to be centred in one dominant voice, be it the Fuhrer (leader), the Big Brother (of whom George Orwell was to speak so trenchantly) or the Great Dictator.

(In passing, a recent brilliantly articulated account of this descent of democracy in India from dialogism to monologism is to be found in Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, titled The Battle of Belonging).

Similarly, closer to our time, the work of the rationalist, Jurgen Habermas, was to raise the seemingly ordinary and  trivial notion of interactive human existence to the level of a potent counter offensive against forms of social thought that sought to look for transcendent meanings in slogans and mystifying shibboleths authorised by so-called transcendent authorities. Not without the endorsement of  conversation (dialogy) as a bedrock could the edifice of democracy be sustained.

Also read: ‘Right to Dissent Is Hallmark of Democracy, Allows Criticism of Govt’: Retired SC Judge

Conversation seen as a threat to state power

In our own day, we can see how in many parts even of the institutionally democratic world, conversation has come to be regarded as conspiracy, inimical to the need for rule by diktat, requiring the assiduous spawning of a zeitgeist of suspicion that views ordinary human chat as a mortal threat to state power. In effect, where democratic constitutions inscribe the edict that sovereignty rests in ‘we the people’, once elected to office, people who care the most for equity and justice are sought to be made the dangerous ‘other’ of the transcendent authority of Fuhrers of diverse hue.

If the Enlightenment had sought to emancipate human beings and transform them into the subjects and agents of history, however partially and cannily this was done at the service of a new dominant class, the thinkers we have cited show how in course of modern history human beings are sought to be robbed of agency, and to be diminished from being subjects to mere objects of intricately deployed manipulations in order to fully convert them into unquestioning  consumers of fetishes calculated to pile on the power of markets and of privately owned wealth. Thus, conversation must give way to compliance, and dialogue to a loyal receptivity to official monologue and dog-whistle.

Inevitably, a state-driven by suspicion and fear of conversation between citizens finds itself obliged to formulate ever new laws to snuff out what capital at its threshold stage had tommed as its new, progressive contribution to history.

Any two people conversing on a street corner may thus come to be viewed as enemies with some sinister menace up their sleeves a fear that obliges the state to expand and deepen its surveillance apparatus through any means at hand, but now, most of all, as Horkheimer and Adorno had anticipated, through technological control mechanisms invisible and incomprehensible to the ordinary person. What is called digitalisation serves two simultaneous purposes it enhances a rapid and instant turnover of lucre and it enables a strangulating control of human agency in ways  that disempowered  people have no countervailing answer to.

What they still may have is the option to carry out mass resistance movements; but states now based in self-serving  slogans of the ‘national’ good a monstrous abstraction that first dub such movements as ‘anti-national’ and then set upon them with all the instruments of legalised oppression and  propaganda blitz that the state alone commands. Forces that draw their purchase from the market, from nationalist jingoism, and from sectarian antagonisms become a massive aid to the repressive project of the new state.

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The refreshingly upright observations made by the high court judge cited above thus speak to a whole history of the descent of democracy into hate-filled fear-mongering, whereby, with the aid of technology, those committed to democracy and justice can overnight be constructed into enemies of the state.

As to civil society, repressive states have learnt to patronise their own manufactured civil societies, guaranteed to convert conversation into menacing brawls both in the media and in households and, neighbourhoods, and now often murderous streets.

If this seems like yet another apocalyptic moment in human history, so I think it is. But, apocalyptic moments have often been brittle. Even as we write, masses of ordinary human beings are protesting oppressions in a plethora of climes and countries, and it remains to be seen what conclusions these happenings may yield.

If Enlightenment commitment to reason has come to be heinously subverted by classes that rode to power and dominance with the Enlightenment moment, this may not be cause enough for human societies and general human intelligence to turn their back on reason.

It is still the best thing going. Only greater reason may have the wherewithal to understand how the waters have been deflected and polluted, and how clear streams may yet be restored to full flow.