The State Divine: Democracy and Rational Discourse Today

Guest Post by Kanav Gupta

As happens in the times of cholera, art and intellect flourish with an insight and sense of urgency that they might not in times of relative stasis. The basic reason for this is the undeferrable need to face the adversity, its conditions and affects: to resist and oppose them, and ‘by opposing end them’.

To that end, in response to the present calamity of the cash-ban, various forms of satire – from petty name-calling to vitriolic memes to more elaborate, innovative and serious satirical forms have emerged strongly. Of course, no amount of satire in the present case seems to have the restorative effect that Dryden promised. There’s perhaps no corrective function in mere satire to such irrevocable political blunders – to those passes in human history where no number of dead bodies are any measure to the tyranny of egos. Satire at the end of the day remains advantaged, and therefore has its limits. Beyond one quantum of tragedy, it is as barbaric as lyric poetry. It seems that Satire is no more effective today than a rant is – perhaps it’s no longer even more moral – because it isn’t sufficiently sensitive. The steam of anger will not do to douse fires.

Satire aside, numerous complex expert analyses of the so called ‘demonetization’ have emerged in the last few days. In a democracy, which is an essentially ‘rational’ political system, these analyses and theories should receive immediate attention and engagement by the state and the subjects alike, instead of the present non-engagement they are being received with. However, most of the votaries of this plan, despite seeing the nature and extent of its meaningless tragedy, continue to repose an almost religious faith (an essentially irrational cognitive-moral relationship) in the state – despite all these various analyses and studied critiques. Moreover, this irrational faith is expressed under an aggressive cover of rationality – as often happens with zealots of any religion trying to prove their scripture a modern scientific treatise (the tilak-helps-concentration or sajda-helps-blood-circulation variety). The usual pro-state casuistry of this sort has so far been focused around the imagined presence of un-taxed money stashed as hard cash with ordinary people. The ultimate proposed aims of this scheme have ranged between making the economy stronger in the initial days to absurd and dramatic battlefield bugles of a dream-nation, a modern ‘promised land’. For many, the scale of destruction is a measure of boldness, and boldness for a weakened heart is divine reason. It is to only be intuited, not argued. Divine reason asks for fifty unquestioned days, in its asking is its ordering – ordering about.

The question however remains, why have the expert critiques not been able to make a dent in this state-manufactured leitmotif of faith-to-promised-land? In other words, why has even expert analysis, a discourse that speaks to reason, produces facts, quotes precedents, etc. not broken through the patina of religious zeal?

The same general question can be asked again through another set of specific questions: Why has the top leader refused to enter the ‘rational’ space of the people’s-house to answer questions, and thereby fulfill the essential prerequisite of a rational state – its answerability to the subjects? Why is he still addressing election-rallies for his political party, or gatecrashing into concerts with video messages where he is again parroting unimaginative and insensitive rhetoric, extremely disconnected from ground zero reality? Why is this medieval variety of battle-rousing demagoguery more acceptable and comfortable to him than the rational argument? Does he know in the heart of hearts that the masses are more than willing to accept anything uncritically as long as it is wrapped in the noisy silver-foil of rhymes and alliteration? Does he know that the mass has become incapable of engaging with complex, or even simple ideas, unless they come with ‘audio-visual’ aid? The mass is messianic in the mind. To save itself from a tiring day, it needs a comedian or a news anchor or a spiritual-guru or a porn-star. To save itself from the exhausting week, it needs the DJ or the psychotherapist – there is of course the ancient Gods. The mass is tuned into the habit of finding and creating little messiahoids who keep saving it from routine apocalypettes. For socio-political vacuum which is articulated/projected as an aeonic moral collapse, it needs a larger Messiah (yadayadahidharmasyahglanirbhavati). Perhaps the top leader is right after all – Messiahs don’t argue or reason, they promise their judgement, and benediction and wrath. Anyway, if deaths of ordinary citizens can be rationalized by the mass in the service of melodramatic abstractions, or worse, as ‘collateral damage’ in the pursuit of a larger goal – not just rationalized but justified – again reminding one eerily of the religious discourses around sacrality and sacrifice – then the state-runner need not worry too much about answerability or argument. This is the Kurukshetra age again. Arjuns shall express no doubts. On the great stage of nationalism, seeking answers becomes not just anti-national but indeed anti-rationale. Kapil Sharmas, Ekta Kapurs and Karan Johurs have played their roles. Poetry and art stand in the service of a rabid advertisement industry, while language stands deprived of all meaning, even its history. Like to beasts, minds have been given tranquilizer-shots.

But after-all, is state anesthesia so powerful? Have masses no agency, no creative potential? Can the whole weight of the problem be laid at the door of the anesthesia of the mind alone? In the success of the state, hasn’t the intellectual failed? After all, to think that the average citizen does not have political understanding or political will is an abject generalization, and so, possibly absolutely wrong. The individual is always rational towards himself. Which is to say, in Weber’s understanding, the individual will make rational choices which fulfill his desires, these desires generally being material. The incipient rationality of the so-called demonetization stands at loggerheads with this essential individual rationality of the individual. As such, off-camera, the average individual is full of tears and cussing, and has perhaps made up his mind where not to vote.

However, let us assume that the average individual in this case is governed only by an animalistic rationality and not by intellect. In such a scenario, the question of the intellectual’s failure will come up again. Has the intellectual made the compromise with the state by accepting its lucrative positions (pun)? Has the intellectual lazily lost the idioms of language that speak to the ordinary individual? Has he done this deliberately, in order to set himself apart and get a career going? Has disciplining of the college level education created opaque walls, which don’t even have windows? Anyway, Higher education beyond college is deemed to be a liability by the society as was shockingly clear from the JNU and Kanhaiya Kumar episode. The large mass of the service class today seems to have no connection with the social sciences – is this only the cunning of the state, or could the intellectual have reached out to the common individual, and never let the state become larger than himself/herself? After all, this is no age for intellectual leaders – political or in the sense of ‘cultural’ icons. Should not the intellectual have done more to come out of ivory towers and found ways to not lose the hold over the individual? Shouldn’t the intellectual have invented new forms of discourse for the moral/intellectual nourishment of the people?

Economics, Civics, Political Science come loaded with very perplexed and perplexing ideas, often laden with prohibitive jargon. These are not ‘natural’ but entirely man-made sciences – social sciences. It would be best if these remain connected to the individuals. These are the times where Humanities are under threat, but quite possibly, only the Humanities can save humanity, but not like this.

No one’s reading such a long post, so lemme insert the name of my favorite bird here: peacock. And pigeons.

(Kanav Gupta teaches Literature in a Delhi University College)

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