Enlightenment and its discontents

In the Sabarimala agitations, the state is acting as an agent of Enlightenment and the protesters are enacting the Counter-Enlightment critique

Updated - November 13, 2021 08:51 am IST

Published - January 13, 2019 12:15 am IST

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek makes a striking observation about the difference between fascism and communism. In fascism — think of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini — when the supreme leader finishes his speech, his body seeks to embody a theatrical gravitas. The leader stares into the crowds and his hands barely move as he soaks in the wave of applause. He never betrays the mask of virility that he carefully adorns.

In contrast, under communism — think of Joseph Stalin, Xi Jinping, or Kim Jong Un — the supreme leader joins in the bonhomie. His hands applaud freely and his body seeks to project conviviality to further the claim that he too is merely a fellow party worker, never hinting at the vast authoritarian powers he oversees. This comparison of political theatre has an element of the farcical. There is, however, one great miserable truth to be extracted.

Universalism and the public good

It is that for fascism, there is little use for the pretence of camaraderie. Any social reality that may allow one to discover reasons for solidarity with the ‘enemy’ is irrelevant. In fascism, all political consciousness progressively substitutes its own critical faculties with a sublimation — an emotional surrender — unto the leader. The idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the leader is fascism’s supreme political fact. In this sense, fascism’s end is an emptying of all ideological consciousness itself. Auschwitz is fascism’s apogee where no humanity remains. In contrast, under (totalitarian) communism, a great emphasis is laid on the explanatory powers of socio-economic realities to justify why the state must oppress many and liquidate some. To this end, an entire bureaucracy is dedicated to the pedagogy of the people (Lenin’s famous exhortation: study, study, study) to ensure that they abandon an old, and purportedly false, consciousness to emerge as new men under the guidance of the party. Those who fail to be appropriately re-educated are deemed the ‘enemy of the people’, ‘class traitors’ and so on. Even the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, which often ended in frostbitten deaths in Siberian gulags, were used for the aggrandisement of ideology.


The liberal political order, which often prides itself as a system of pragmatic choices, drained of ideological excesses — except, perhaps, for the cult of individualism — nevertheless shares one crucial similarity with communism and fascism. All make universalist claims, often in the name of public good. All three ideological structures have little use for heterogeneous socio-cultural realities such as India’s where mutually contradictory belief systems are held by different communities and where the same beliefs elicit a diversity of ritualist expressions. When A.K. Ramanujan asked, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?” it was the fragmentary nature of Indian social reality that midwifed his answer.

Such universalist tendencies have, however, also found oppositions in the form of what is sometimes called the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’. The Enlightenment, to summarise, was a vast constellation of diverse efforts that sought to disenchant the world of its belief in a world of unreason that took many forms — witchcraft, soothsaying, divinity of royals, and ultimately religion. But this zeal towards Enlightenment doesn’t come without exacting its own revenge. In the 1940s, two great German Marxist thinkers, Theodor Adorno and his teacher Max Horkheimer, described how the Enlightenment project, through its relentless stress on utilitarian ideas and zeal to strip away human imperfections, is pregnant with a form of political myth-making through a process they called ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment’. These newfangled political myths are variations of totalitarianism.

As if intuiting this inevitability, the Counter-Enlightenment voices sought to deflate any claims of Cartesian omniscience made by Enlightenment figures. They argued, most persuasively in the voice of the early modern Italian thinker Giambattista Vico, that historical consciousness and context-specific reading is key to distinguish between self-understanding of a people and the mere administrative logic employed by the ‘enlightened despotism’ of the state.

The debate today

In his last book called Age of Anger: A History of the Present , Pankaj Mishra elegantly traced the modern origins of this schism — the universalist versus the particularist — to an old debate between two French philosophers, Rousseau and Voltaire, who disagreed on the fate of Poland. Voltaire argued that the Poles were a backward people (“One Pole is a charmer; two Poles — a brawl; three Poles — well, this is the Polish Question.”) who needed to be dragged by force into the modern age. Rousseau, in contrast, stressed that Poland should maintain its own traditions, even if it runs counter to reigning fashionable philosophies of secular modernity prevalent in the salons of 18th century Paris. We see this debate prosecuted to this day in India — most stridently in the recent Sabarimala agitations — where the state acts as an agent of Enlightenment and the protesters enact the Counter-Enlightenment critique.

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