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keerthik sasidharan

Enlightenment and its Discontents

Enlightenment and its Discontents

In a lecture by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, he makes a seemingly trivial, but surprisingly capacious, observation about the differences between Fascism and Communism. In Fascism when the supreme leader finishes his speech, his body — aware of the thousand and one eyes watching him — seeks to embody a theatrical gravitas. The leader stares into the skies, his hands are marked by inaction, all the while as he soaks the wave of applause that comes his way, never betraying the mask of virility that he carefully wears. In contrast, under Communism, when the supreme leader  finishes his speech, he joins in the bonhomie. His hands applaud freely, his body becomes a willing instrument of an ideology that privileges egalitarianism among the Party faithful. The leader’s body and manners seek to project conviviality, a jovial paternalism, furthering the illusion that he too is merely a fellow party worker and never betraying the gulags of violent authoritarianism he oversees.

This is, of course, a portrayal of extremes; a parody of mores. Notwithstanding that this comparison of political theater has an element of the farcical there is however one great miserable truth to be extracted. It is that for Fascism, in its crystalline essence, there is little use for the pretense of camaraderie, of being cognizant of any digressive social reality that may allow one to update one’s previously held view, or to discover any source of empathy with the enemy. In Fascism, the political movement progressively steers to replicate, mimic, genuflect, and ultimately entirely sublimate its critical faculties unto the persona and idiosyncrasies of the supreme leader. The result is that the entire state apparatus becomes a vast taxonomical engine at work whose principal task is to identify and classify individuals into separate groups, often on the basis of some invariant detail (Jews, gypsy, handicapped etc) which would earmark them for incarceration leading to liquidation. In this sense, Fascism reveals that instrumental Reason taken to its logical ends is indistinguishable from naked violence. There is no use for conventions, modes, and institutions of Reason tempered by human empathy that have evolved over the centuries. Auschwitz is Fascism’s inevitable singularity from which no humanity can return.

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 just as much, if not more. To this end, an entire bureaucracy is dedicated to the pedagogy of the people to ensure that they abandon an old, and therefore purportedly false, consciousness to emerge as new men under the guidance of the Party. (An old joke about Lenin’s famous exhortation: learn, learn, learn comes to mind):

“Marx, Engels and Lenin are asked whether they would prefer to have, a wife or a mistress. As expected, Marx, rather conservative in private matters, answers ‘A wife!’, while Engels, more of a bon vivant, opts for a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says: ‘I’d like to have both!’ Why? Is there a hidden stripe of decadent jouisseur behind his austere revolutionary image? No – he explains: ‘so that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife…’ ‘And then, what do you do?’ ‘I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!’”

Those who fail to be appropriately ‘re-educated’ are deemed the ‘enemy of the people’, a ‘class traitor’ and so on. Even the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, which often ended in frostbitten deaths in Siberian gulags or a bullet to the nape of the neck inside Lubyanka Prison is used for the aggrandizement of ideology. In this sense, whereas Fascism is for the pathologically violent, Communism through its elaborate borrowings from traditional institutions and arts, provides a veneer of respectability, presents itself as a natural outcome of European traditions, all the while masquerading the concentration of power in the hands of the few. (Hannah Arendt writes that to think about Marx is to think about Western tradition itself; she also notes, to reduce Marx to Stalin is not just fashionable but also foolish.)

Even the Liberal political order, which often prides itself as a system of pragmatic choices, drained of ideological excesses nevertheless shares one crucial similarity with Communism and Fascism. All three systems make universalist claims, often in the name of public good. All three ideological structures have little use for heterogenous socio-cultural realities such as India’s where orthogonal belief systems are held by different communities, where 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.

This natural zeal for universalism, in a way, should not come as a surprise. For all three took their modern form as the progeny of Enlightenment, which to broadly summarize, was a vast constellation of diverse efforts that sought to disenchant the world of its belief in a vast unseen but immanent theater of unreason. Unreason that took many forms — witchcraft, soothsaying, divinity of royals, and ultimately religious traditions themselves. Whereas, in the human imaginary before the Enlightenment (here, for sake of simplicity, we discount a more complex global history of various Enlightenments, within Europe itself and across the world), belief in the actual workings of the world — be it through magic or prophecy — was often contingent, the real enemy of the Enlightenment was the Church. The irony of course lay in that much like the Semitic religions that make universalist claims which which Enlightenment thinkers sought to break free, the political projects that spawned from their writings made similarly universalist claims,. Only this time, what was birthed was a strange beast: the head of universalist ideologies grafted atop the body of a State.

As if intuiting this inevitable birth of the demon seed reared in the womb of Reason, 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 Giambatista Vico, who wrote well before the Enlightenment was in full bloom — that historical consciousness and context specific reading was key to distinguish between self-understanding of a people and the mere administrative logic employed by the ‘enlightened despotism’ of the State.

In his last book called ‘Age of Anger: A History of the Present’, the author Pankaj Mishra elegantly traces 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.

The intellectual descendants of Voltaire are diverse and widespread. The Canadian intellectual, John Ralston Saul wrote an extraordinary indictment of them — lawyers and judges, to clerks and bureaucrats— called “Voltaire’s Bastards”, all of who worship at the altar of procedure and precedent, in turn birthing vast imperiums of rule-making in the name of common good. They do so, Ralston argues, all the while imagining themselves to be descendants to the luminous self-criticality of 18th century Enlightenment thinkers when they are merely re-enacting the role of courtiers of the past. Where once stood the King’s unending dominion, there now stand the universalist claims of the public good.

Like much else in life, however, an unmitigated advance of universalism must breed its own perverse offsprings. By the 1940s, when the titanic ideologies of Fascism, Communism, and Liberalism were engaged in global wars — two great German Marxist thinkers, Theodore Adorno and his teacher Max Horkheimer, described how the Enlightenment project — through its relentless stress on utilitarian ideas and zeal to strip away of human imperfections — had birthed a form of political myth making through a process they called ‘The Dialectics of Enlightenment’. For them, the original myth of the Enlightenment that venerates only that which can be calculated, computed, logged, analyzed — had inevitably brought forth a vision of humanity sans human imperfections and imaginaries, ideologies that worshipped nothing else but brute force. The result was, they argued, a political system that consecrates all its inner energies into the persona of a supreme leader and acquires the form that we now call Fascism. What they however left unsaid was this new mythographies of instrumental Reason as supreme, if consecrated in the name of the people and a revolution that extinguishes traditions, is also indistinguishable from totalitarian Communism of the 20th century. Nearly fifty years later, by the early 90s, when neoliberal projects began to bloom earnestly — they too imagined a world where nation-states were mere bedbugs in the dreamscape of unimpeded capital flows. A little noticed historical irony is that the neoliberal projects were imagined in the 1920s and 1930s as response to the end of the old Austro-Hungarian empire — a world of rank, hierarchy, custom, decrepit institutions, demarcated boundaries between language and ethnicities — which in turn, imperiled traditional finance.

That much of the West still struggles under these ideologies left behind by their ancestors is perhaps understandable. That much of Indian political scene continues to speak solely in these terms — retrofitting European vocabularies to Indian scenery — is a source of not just low key comedy where vainglorious sloganeering by minor political brigands is purported as meaningfully representative of the Indian condition; but is also a fount of a deep wound, a tragedy in all but name, where our political imagination feeds off the intellectual leftovers of other people’s experiences. . []

Excerpts from a Diary - 1

Excerpts from a Diary - 1