The politics of everyday life

“Everyday life is routine, recedes unnoticed into the background of our experience, and appears to be trivial.“

“Everyday life is routine, recedes unnoticed into the background of our experience, and appears to be trivial.“

Past societies have appeared to relentlessly deprecate everyday life. At least those elites who have written extensively about the good life have always made a distinction between a life lived in pursuit of the higher good, chasing whatever in their view is of ultimate worth, and one with little worth or significance. Everyday life was always listed under the latter category, ubiquitous but insignificant, in contrast to a life of contemplation, an adventurous life of war, conquest or politics, or one in the service of high art or religion in which humans are said to fulfil those transcendent values in which they encounter ‘their essential being’.

It is true, of course, that not all traditions relegate everyday life to insignificance. The life of the householder ( Grihastha ) in the Brahmanical tradition was worthy, self-fulfilling and endowed with religious, perhaps even philosophical, significance. Jain and Buddhist traders also endowed mercantile life with value as did, arguably, the European bourgeois with a Protestant ethic. However, even these traditions deemed the daily life of the majority of labouring people as possessing little or no intrinsic value.

Features of everyday life

Now, there is a grain of truth in the idea of the apparent insignificance of everyday life. The mere fact that something is repeated everyday makes it dull, mundane and boring. It is too familiar to generate a sense of surprise or excitement. Everyday life is routine, recedes unnoticed into the background of our experience, and appears to be trivial. What excitement can be generated in brushing one’s teeth, or in cleaning, cooking, washing clothes or dishes? What enjoyment can be derived from the drudgery of these chores? Indeed, even activities that give one an initial kick become tedious over time, to be avoided, something from which one needs a holiday.

With such images in mind, many philosophers have observed that the everyday symbolises some of the most alienating features of human life. The repetitive nature of labour and the fatigue that ensues, the burden of housework and raising children, among other activities, led thinkers such as Martin Heidegger to designate the everyday as the domain of “inauthenticity, triviality and error”. For the poor, the everyday is more than just boring and dull. It is relentlessly arduous assembly line work, sub-standard conditions at home, obligatory use of jam-packed public transport, the struggle for daily bread, not to speak of the deep inhumanity embedded in, say, manual scavenging. Such an existence could deprive anyone of imagination and reason, permanently dull the senses and the mind, if it were not for the incomprehensible, mysterious quality of the human spirit.

In places like Europe, the significance of everyday life was properly acknowledged only after the horror of the war ended. When the French state was demilitarised and ordinary people began to receive adequate supplies, everydayness emerged as an important enough category of thought. Interest in the everyday was subsequently revived after the realisation that the carnivalesque character of the student-worker’s revolt of May 68 in Paris, in which everyday life was suspended for a few weeks, was ephemeral and unsustainable. However, in India, the salience of the everyday jumps to the eye almost every second. The everyday, in whatever form, is all that the people have. It is its very inescapability, its ability to suck the majority of the people into a daily grind, to deny them virtually everything they need or want, to turn them into a bundle of frustrations that might compel them to rebel against conditions steeped in indignities. A war or revolt is not needed here to imagine the relief we might experience when released from the pain of everyday living or to dream of a better here and now.

I imagine everyday life is hellish for the destitute. But consider the life of an average middle-class person in most Indian cities. An endless wait at the bus stop for service that is late or for a three-wheeler which does not run by meter or for a train that never arrives on schedule; a tap that is perpetually dry; failing electricity that makes a hot day insufferable, and the evenings without television, the only form of entertainment; queuing up every month to pay bills; running from desk to desk to rectify a wrongly calculated tax but to no avail; getting interrupted by repair men just when reaching the climax of a thriller; being compelled to use filthy, foul-smelling public toilets; walking with supreme concentration on uneven sidewalks for fear of stepping into potholes or cow dung; suffering an anxiety-filled night as a young daughter heads back home in dimly lit streets; reconciling with children without playgrounds having to make do with accident-prone by-lanes; fearing dengue or malaria; facing unavailability of beds in hospitals; awaiting an ambulance that fails to arrive in the golden hour and if it does, not reaching the Emergency on time; and when it rains, streams sprouting everywhere, as traffic snarls. Add to this, contaminated water and unbearably polluted air and the misery is complete. Indeed, many of these travails afflict even the upper middle class, no matter how hard it tries to buy good health, clean air or fast cars. Is not every one of the 800 million mobile users in India a potential victim of state surveillance and a continuing target of the cannibalising instincts of big corporations? Everyday life is continuously disrupted by the inefficiency or machinations of the state and MNCs, and by our own thoughtless complicity.

Collective action

These disruptions will not disappear on their own or by the goodwill of benefactors. Individuals on their own cannot prevent them. Even daily resistance by well-meaning but isolated individuals is insufficient to undo the damage. These largely, privately enjoyed benefits can be had only with resolute collective action. How else can change in these abysmal conditions be effected except by a surge in collective protest? Only collective politics can sustain everyday life. A broad alliance cutting across regional, religious, and caste differences is required to restore the dignity of everyday life. We need a politics that seeks a transformation of life in its everyday detail, that helps us enjoy its rhythm and texture.

It seems to be inevitable that the politics of the next decades will be around people’s need to have a smooth, uninterrupted, dignified everyday life — clean air, water, sanitation, better roads and public transport, uncontaminated food, a secure private life, to name a few. Politics will be around the fulfilment of basic needs, to secure a minimally decent life. We all desperately need ease of the simple business of living a life and a government that delivers it. Rather than chase utopias, politics in the near future needs to set its eyes firmly on everyday life and the woes that beset it. After all, how long can the everyday be waylaid by sensational promises of a grandiose future, by hollow but spectacular events, indeed even by the festivities of election after election?

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, CSDS, Delhi

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2022 3:42:32 am |