Kanhaiya Kumar, former President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union and leader of the All India Students Federation (AISF). Wikicommons/Mullookkaaran. Some rights reserved.
The Brexit referendum and the follow-up debates have highlighted a trend relevant to the nature of democracy not just in Great Britain but other countries including America and India. These show how differently the common people think from the creative community and intellectuals.
The referendum favoured Britain’s leaving the European Union because workers and the unemployed felt that the immigrants and other foreigners were responsible for their economic woes and joined disillusioned middle classes who wanted to “take back control”. Banking on the economic insecurity of the British working class, the “leavers” fuelled fear and resentment and won the referendum.
The campaign widened the gulf between the working class and intellectuals including scientists and the creative community. Scientists and artistes see foreigners serving British interests in the fields of research, innovation, arts and culture. They favour a freer movement of people and oppose tighter immigration controls. They also benefit from EU funding.
So, the British scientists make statements that are liked by those who want Britain to remain in the European Union, notwithstanding the referendum’s result. The Eurosceptics do not see scientists as their allies.
Royal Society President Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and two of his predecessors alerted the government about the Brexit’s adverse impact on science and innovation in Britain. “Trashing relationships with the EU and member states will jeopardise scientific progress and damage innovation and the economy.” Continued cooperation and mobility are vital for the advancement of science, they say. A scientist laments that his community has neither the resources nor the place of prominence to mould public opinion.
Similarly, musicians and opera houses will face difficulties because of Brexit. The classical music sector feels unsettled. Brexit will result in the stoppage of EU funding. Musicians will have to apply for the visas. Thousands of students from EU countries in the British music schools will face problems. The pan-European regulations on intellectual property will create a complex situation. The European Youth Orchestra is shifting its administrative headquarters from the UK to Italy. “You can’t ask for EU funding and then not be in the EU.”
Town vs. Gown?
The issues of culture and science do not concern the English masons, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and factory workers. They are easily made to resent the cheap foreign labour. The interests of workers and intellectuals diverge. In times of economic insecurity, a populist leader encourages the working class to hate “foreigners”. The intellectuals and the working class can hardly converse with each other when mutual antipathy is created. A Town vs. Gown kind of situation develops!
Earlier, intellectuals were not distant from the people and governance. The concept of philosopher-king was prevalent in the ancient India, Greece and Rome. Much later in India, the king with no pretensions of being a philosopher, had a scholar as his official teacher-adviser with the designation of Rajguru.
In old Europe, artisans used to be radicalised by intellectuals who prepared them for a political role. This interaction led to “levelling up”. A paper on the “political shoemakers” of Britain co-authored by Eric Hobsbawm quotes a verse that was popular in the 18th century. “A cobbler once in days of yore /Sat musing at his cottage door. /He liked to read old books, he said. /And then to ponder, what he’d read.”
The paper lists a number of shoemaker-intellectuals and says that the shoemaker’s reputation as popular philosopher and politician predates the era of industrial capitalism. It cites the example of a shoemaker holding classes in Marxism. It recalls that the shoemaker uncle of Lloyd Gorge taught his nephew the elements of radical politics in a Welsh village of the 1880s. The artisan communities declined but after leaving their mark on history.
So, there was a time when the gulf between intellectuals and the common people could be bridged and the two together managed to change the political course of their country.
Even during the last century, intellectuals enjoyed a privileged status in society and exercised considerable influence in politics. Their theoretical work paved the way for the emergence of regimes committed to ideologies, good or bad. The earlier ideological revolutions apart, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher derived her inspiration from a certain school of economists to implement her economic development and social engineering plans.
Intellectuals interacted intensely with the commoners in an era marked by inter-class empathy and concern. In India, Prime Minister Nehru used to address mass meetings on topics such as democracy, development, secularism and scientific temper. Another westernised law graduate, Mahatma Gandhi, successfully conveyed his thoughts to millions of Indians most of whom were not literate.
The intellectuals’ interaction with the commoners had started to decline even before the rise of aggressive populism. Some other factors weakened the intellectuals’ capacity to sway public opinion or influence political trends.
Capitalism is essentially anti-democratic and in collusion with political power it suppresses dissent and disrupts the dialogue between the intellectual and her or his audience. The government does not have to come into the picture at all. Hired hooligans or advertisers can do the job. A new book by an eminent intellectual can be pulped by the publisher threatened by a mob. Or it can disappear from the shelves because of poor sales as compared to the bazaru (mass market) fiction. The market becomes a barrier as the intermediaries such as the publishing giants come to play a big role.
Faced with market realism, an intellectual may imbibe the spirit of the new times and tailor his thoughts accordingly. He fears marginalisation and may harbour material aspirations that distance him from the ordinary folks. Thus, an intellectual’s enthusiasm to interact with public gets dampened and his communication skills decline.
Intellectuals in India are being told not to confine their activity to academia. A student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, makes this point in his powerful speeches as he draws attention to the crisis created by the Modi Government. He attributes the rise of populism and bigotry to the lack of communication between intellectuals and the masses.
Intellectuals write papers on “othering” that a few people read and hold seminars on the “outsiders” that only like-minded academics attend. An intellectual comes to public attention only when he says something that hurts a community’s religious sentiments! Intellectuals write papers on “othering” that a few people read and hold seminars on the “outsiders” that only like-minded academics attend. An intellectual comes to public attention only when he says something that hurts a community’s religious sentiments!
In a politically surcharged atmosphere, intellectuals hesitate to create a controversy. Politicians have dragged universities into verbal battles over nationalism, patriotism and the display of national flags and discarded battle tanks in the campuses.
When dissenters get threatened, some resort to self-censorship and some fall silent. Unlike Britain’s Royal Society, the Indian National Science Academy does not release papers to influence government policies on controversial issues lest such statements displease the powers that be. It maintains silence even when political leaders make ridiculous anti-science statements.
Intellectuals may have discreetly redefined their role, opting for discretion instead of valour. Thus, they falter in promoting public interest even when not threatened by the mobs or the government. Some decide to become sarkari (official) intellectuals in order to prove their nationalism and to defend the leader.
“Carnival of Democracy”
On the other side, some of the recipients of information and knowledge are now mentally less equipped for such an interaction thanks to the falling standards of school education. They are too distracted by the entertainment media of the lowest kind. Social media, captured by unethical political activists, turns an assertion of democratic rights into a farcical exercise. It diminishes democracy. Newspapers report elections under the banner: “Carnival of Democracy”.
A populist leader with autocratic instincts unleashes a vicious campaign to widen the gulf between the intellectual class and hoi polloi. He gathers mass support by spraying simple slogans. He makes false promises. He fuels hatred by popularising false history. He wins the common man’s sympathy by promising to clip the wings of the “elite”. He can come from a remote town to challenge the Washington elite or New Delhi elite!
The current atmosphere in many countries has turned favourable for leaders fuelling hatred by invoking cultural nation identity and using immigration and religion for polarisation. They thus widen the gulf between the intellectual elite and the commoners.
The political establishment in country after country has devalued the intellectual elite. A new kind of leader regales the people with a vulgar political discourse, running down the intellectual elite. Burkean logic or an indigenous tradition of argumentation has vanished from parliamentary debates. What was unsayable in public has become sayable. Threats to writers and artists keep growing.
A populist leader co-opts the financial elite who care little about sectarian strife and do not have the guts to oppose an oppressor. It is ever ready to support a strong leader who offers financial incentives. Since most intellectuals cannot be recruited as accomplices, a populist leader ridicules them to make them fall in public esteem. He targets writers, poets and independent journalists because they breed dissent.
The names of “anti-Indian intellectuals” are available for all to see as a media organ has put their list on the web. There are biographical details and extracts from their books or speeches to show how they defame India and Hinduism. Those named and shamed can even read what the hate-mongers say about them in the comments section. An intellectual wanting to win digital applause must leave Hinduism alone and point a finger at Islam.
Some years ago, when eminent historian Romila Thapar got a Congressional fellowship in the US, some right-wing people of Indian origin circulated email messages criticising her. It so happens that India suffers from a grave deficit in right-wing intellectuals and the current regime is seeking ‘thinkers’ who can malign left-leaning intellectuals. It so happens that India suffers from a grave deficit in right-wing intellectuals and the current regime is seeking ‘thinkers’ who can malign left-leaning intellectuals.
Intellectuals face graver dangers under dictatorships. When the Pakistan army committed a genocide in East Bengal, its prime targets were university professors and students. The option of getting intellectuals shot is not available in a democracy. So, they are terrorised with the help of the ruling party’s storm-troopers.
The numbers of brave dissenters shrink. Speaking truth to power calls for sacrifice. And not many intellectuals are prepared to be physically harmed or be marginalised. Thus, the intellectual elite invites the charge of cowardice. However, it is not fair to expect a writer, an academic or a journalist to lay down her life for principles, though some Indians in the recent years did court that destiny. But why should a writer cross the road if he sees a mob on the other side baying for his blood? A semiotician suffering from toothache goes to a dentist! That is why at times the literary fists are not raised and the literature festivals and prominent universities and colleges ditch the principle of freedom of speech and disinvite speakers.
The populist leader, the biggest beneficiary of social media, leads an army of trollers and commands millions of devotees ever ready to hit out at any critic. Populism curtails the power of reason by silencing intellectuals. An elected populist leader establishes a Republic of Unreason.
Republic of Unreason and the progress of democracy
A populist in power breeds children of absolutism. He distorts history, modifies school text-books and through social media creates a fake reality in the minds of the young as well as the old. Trained historians with academic rigour and research experience are made redundant by the army of trollers circulating pages and pages of “history” to validate the leader’s rhetoric. This massive fraud polarises the voters. They are incited to take revenge for the alleged atrocities suffered by their forefathers!
A populist leader comes to power by fuelling the people’s dissatisfaction with the traditional elites. He masquerades as one of “them”, the ordinary folk, raising a banner of revolt against the politically privileged lot who failed to solve the problems of the common man.
This leader finds even scholarly criticism galling. He sees the critic as an enemy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose claim of a college degree is being doubted, ridicules Harvard University. A Nobel Laureate teaching in Harvard University criticised India’s economic policies. Modi shot back: Hard work vs. Harvard! Such leaders are suspicious of the public universities which are currently under attack in India. The Republican Party in the US too is not favourably disposed towards the institutes of higher learning.
Once the masses are swayed by post-truth rhetoric, fake news and calls for hating the others, a brave intellectual finds himself crying in the wilderness. The recent developments in India, Great Britain and America, have further diminished the intellectual elite’s role in politics.
Of course, one must note that it is the progress of democracy that made possible the emergence of semi-literate leaders who ignore or confront the intellectual elite. The transition signals the transfer of political power from those blessed with higher education and leadership qualities to those who took time to learn the ropes of climbing to the top in the political pecking order.
As mentioned earlier, once the working classes were led not by one among them but by those well-versed in theories that explained their interests. These thought leaders mobilised workers and organised their struggles. Some such leaders, because of their class background, were called “champagne socialists”.
A semi-literate populist leader displeases some among the elite and the mutual antipathy gets expressed at times. Narendra Modi, during his poll campaign, showed off his humble origins, hitting out at a privileged dynasty. Referring to Modi’s claim that as young man, he used to serve tea in a shop, a Cambridge-educated politician in the opposite camp derisively called him a chaiwallah (tea boy, not fit for a high office). This was a God-sent remark for Modi and he used it to win over more unprivileged voters.
It is inherent in the logic of democracy that those who cannot dream of wielding political power will assume it one day, irrespective of their social status, academic qualifications or criminal record. Utopian intellectuals, now unable to influence the common people, had dreamt of the democratic process leading to a “levelling up”. What we see today is “levelling down”. There are few role models in a politics that has come to be dominated by political entrepreneurs who grab power by playing to the basest instincts of the common people.
The credit for introducing and promoting democracy goes to the intellectual elite. They prepared the theoretical framework and then popularised the principles by interacting with the people. Some aristocrat-intellectuals joined the mission risking their status and privileges. They even influenced those potential beneficiaries who were initially indifferent to a democratic order.
But now a government in India is unlikely to be led by a highly educated “champagne socialist”, who devoted his life to working for the poor and made them conscious of their rights. Partly because he cannot compete in telling tales during the poll campaign. Nor can he follow a cynical sinister scheme to influence the voters. If a principled yet powerful leader does emerge, he can only come from yesterday’s disempowered classes.
It is said that a revolution eats its children. With democratisation coming such a long way, one might say that democracy eats its parents!
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