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A pick between dark politics or collective resistance

All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.” — C. Wright Mills

Donald Trump’s drive to upend a legitimate election has shaken faith in the functioning of democracy worldwide. When a president of a country himself condones the rioters or calls them “patriots”, a grim reality awaits democracy in the face of the pervasive political polarisation ripping apart the very political fabric of a nation. Politicians across the globe sink to new levels of unwarranted incitement of a malleable public, a disastrous and politically debasing tendency of constitutional democracy.

U.S. Capitol | The siege of a historical power centre

History as a pointer

The loss of faith in the ruling elite points towards a disturbing future. The long and cyclic dark history of civilisation, of wars and violence, of religious fanaticism and irrationality is a loud indication of the failure to model society on rational principles. Our inherently dialectical history confirms the simultaneous birth of opposing forces at the very moment of assertion of any “truth”. For example, the trajectory of liberal democracy evolving into totalitarianism is evidently present in the brute forces of Italian fascism or German Nazism, two striking examples of the birth of vulgar nationalist fervour and racial superiority.

The shock of Capitol Hill

In the wake of the debacle on Capitol Hill, the world awakes to the reality of the scourge of violence within democracy, rousing a serious national debate on what comprises aggression, who perpetuates it, and why. It is imperative to halt the runaway course of democracy towards an environment increasingly subsumed in the violence of fear and hatred, an overwhelming plague in any civil society. Breaking, therefore, through the intellectual vacuity of the official discourse and coming to grips with the history of electoral violence we see that what happened on the Potomac is nothing new in the long history of racist and electoral violence.

But it is not Mr. Trump who is solely responsible. The people are as much to be blamed. Jason Brennan, in his valuable and bracing book, Against Democracy, makes the contrarian conclusion that democratic participation promotes human beings to forget common sense and common politesse. Voters, as he puts it rather uncharitably, are “biased, ill-informed football hooligans” who “can present arguments for their beliefs, but cannot explain alternative points of view”. Along with them are the “hobbits”, a section that lacks fixed strong views on political matters. These two categories have their antithesis in the “Vulcans” who, Brennan argues, “think scientifically and rationally about politics”. Nazism, Trumpism or Hindutva are outstanding examples of this syndrome and the analogy fits in aptly with the credentials of the demonstrators in Washington DC, the “superbiased” who mindlessly fall in line with the manifesto of the ruling dispensation.

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Evasive promise

Philosophical democratic theory is, therefore, rather perplexing. One aspect is the idolised view of democracy as an inimitably just form of government where people have the right to equal share of political power that empowers the people. However, judging by the history of violence, this could be an absolutely off the mark argument within real-world politics. It only shows that political participation has the potential of making people more irrational, prejudiced and mean. It pulls apart, impedes the social order and creates antagonists of civic order. A higher form of life that democracy promises seems to evade the public.

The debatable questions, therefore, would be: Does democracy leave you smart and active, or dumb and uncivilised? Does it give us a broad outlook or is it selfishly limiting to one’s immediate needs? Does it not make people live in a world of delusion and deceit expediently passing the blame on to the Left or the “professional anarchists” responsible for violent acts of arson and loot, while thousands of protesters sustaining the powerful state apparatus are labelled as “peaceful” or as “patriots”. Death, pain and physical injury of people fighting back for civil liberties and human rights are of no consequence.

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The power and brutality of state violence therefore stands legitimised while justifiable or innocent violence accompanying demonstrations against racism or police ferocity result in ruthless consequences. The nightmare of history indeed, brings us face to face with sinister times that impel the need to oppose the offensive right-wing narrative that discourages dialogue, economic welfare and freedom of expression. The erosion of egalitarianism and freedom through unprecedented challenges from anti-humanist forces pushing democratic institutions to the brink of failure is effectively in operation globally.

At the irreducible moment of confronting the nightmare of history, we have a choice before us. Either we accept the politics of ethnic intolerance, inequality and violence or arouse within us the unfaltering urge to resist the status quo. In the absence of activism, people are bound to fall prey to irrationality, resentment, xenophobia and the inexorable yearning for fear-inducing power. Shockingly, the right-wing fringe element anywhere in the world, America or India, seem untouched by the state brutality on the innocent and the marginalised.

In pictures | Chaos, violence, mockery as pro-Trump mob occupies U.S. Capitol

Political beginnings

Recognising the failures of the past while retaining hope for the future, we need to develop a critique of violence within democracies that is adequate to the times. Understandably, there is always a political struggle basic to the recognition of evident and hidden forms of injustice and violence that make people mindful of it, deliberate on it, and act. These are the “political beginnings” that Hannah Arendt optimistically spoke of in her perennially relevant book, Men in Dark Times. To her, the collective power of the people mattered more than the power of the state, but only when the struggle is against authoritarianism and bigotry, not when the masses begin to prop a fascist disposition.

Shelley Walia, a professor, has taught Cultural Theory at the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 11:06:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-pick-between-dark-politics-or-collective-resistance/article33638352.ece

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