Making Sense of Contemporary Failure of Politics

What explains the farce that has been politics wedded to violence – from dozens of recent conflicts/wars to Muslim revivalist politics and its brutal suppression by secularist/neo-colonialist forces of which the latest illustration is shocking treatment met to Muhammad Mursi? Lack of thinking or uncritical mindset that believes in violence as power or force to effect one’s desired outcome. Belief in violence as a means springs basically from weakness, argued Hannah Arendt who also summed up what we need to keep in mind to help ourselves in  a world that construes politics  in terms of power calculus: “…every human being is a thinking being and can reflect as well as I do and can therefore judge for himself, if he wants to.” “And to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, et cetera.” “There are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise.”

Japsers has argued that philosophy and politics concern everyone. It is no chance that the most influential philosophers from Plato to Arendt have been concerned with politics or thinking about politics. What was especially noteworthy for Arendt about his philosopher friend Jaspers was that “he exposed himself to the currents of public life, speaking out with consistent reasonableness on public issues.” If politics concerns few, or concerns paid party workers primarily, it is because it has failed. Today I note some insights of her on the forgotten

Power and Violence are opposites

The stronger people are masters of themselves and as such aren’t violent in approach. This point has been reiterated by prophets and philosophers though readily forgotten by some believers. It goes to the credit of Hannah Arendt in modern times to argue for this in a world where few contest the dogma of “might is right.” As the author of Why Arendt Matters notes: “She was really arguing that power and violence are opposites. Hers was not an argument like Gandhi’s for nonviolence, but an argument for power, which is most powerful when it is nonviolent. Particularly for people like us, who live in a world where it is routinely assumed that those with the biggest armies or arsenals, or the ultimate weapon, are the ones with power—or even “superpower”—and where it is assumed that power means the capacity to rule over others, her distinction is hard to understand and its implications hard to imagine in wars, which under contemporary technological conditions will be “won” by those with superior means of violence. Such a “victory” further persuades people that violence is power. But under contemporary conditions such a victory really means that the victor resorted to violence from lack of power, that it was unwilling or unable to find a nonviolent way to deal with its enemies.” She also held that “modern battlefields permit no revelations of who an actor is, no deeds to be judged great; rather, they are like meetings of speechless robots, some of whom kill and some of whom are killed.”

When the question of reconciliation is raised and immediately one is told how come one can forget history or erase memory of pain, Arendt’s reply would involve the recognition of the point  that “one does not forgive a deed at all, but the doer of a deed, a person.” Indeed this is real power, power to forgive. One must be healed inside first and that involves forgiving the culprits in the manner Joseph and the Prophet of Islam (S.A.W) forgave their opponents. One can’t, however, condone oppression or occupation or evil. For Arendt, fighting evil and forgiving evil aren’t incompatible. This is argued in her analysis of Eichmann trial.

One may do evil without being evil

Adolph Eichmann was the Nazi operative at the front organising the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps for executing the Nazi’s Final Solution. Arendt concluded in her study of the case, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil(1963) that he performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his “thoughtlessness” and “never realized what he was doing” due to an “inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Committed primarily to his career and lacking any deeper convictions, he “commit[ted] crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong.” Arendt dubbed these collective characteristics of Eichmann ‘the banality of evil.’  Arendt concluded that Eichmann (as well as other Germans) did evil without being evil and noted that “he was a superficial person, thoroughly conformist to his thoroughly banal society, with no independent sense of responsibility, motivated only by a wish to move up in the Nazi hierarchy.”

The sin of most careerist politicians and bureaucrats is that they fail to think and take responsibility for their complicity in evil they help perpetuate and cite rules of the game in their defense. Isn’t one guilty if one’s job is linked to killing/maiming/imprisoning someone for the sake of nameless other/ideology?

Party Politics

Arendt’s 1971 essay on the Pentagon Papers, “Lying in Politics,” noted the presence of lying throughout political history. One is here tempted to extrapolate the idea to analyze the essence of party politics as complicit in the art of lying. How many politicians of note or spokespersons of any party one can name who didn’t lie? The idea of representing common people or voters is a white lie. What Arendt wrote in “Civil Disobedience” is now felt with greater intensity now: “Representative government itself,” she writes, “is in a crisis today, partly because it has lost . . . all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the … parties’ tendency to represent nobody but the party machines.” It is probably belated recognition of this that has fuelled such initiatives as Back to Village or emphasis on the Gandhian ideal of Panchayat Raj that makes each village a republic not vulnerable to any outside force or other systems that decentralize tax collection and spending and administration is the task that party politics thwarts. Stronger the parties, more vulnerable are the people. The State, the parties, the bureaucratic apparatus all have, generally speaking, so far strengthened at the cost of people.

From Arendt’s viewpoint one may assert that almost all key slogans and concepts and ready made analyses we are used to – sovereignty, self determinism, self rule, autonomy, terrorism, azadi, strikes and youth’s drift to violence – are rather “hackneyed, not sensitive enough to what is new and not understandable in old concepts.” Her judgment on much of what goes in the name of politics of violence that results in nothing but destruction of life and what sustains life would have been Kant’s “There is no cure for stupidity.”

Democracy as recognition of there is another side

Noting the end result of disempowerment of common people and most of stake holders following elections as complained by so many after every end term examination of party rule, one may assert that currently we are suffering from want of ideas, reluctance to think anew in every sphere including politics. Arendt advocated what Kant referred to as the “enlarged mentality” of opinion sharing, consulting, paying calls on other points of view: “But look sharp!” Here is the other side, another perspective.” Party politics is not the best way for what Habermas called communicative dialogue and it militates against the soul of shoora (consultation) that constitutes the soul of the idea of democracy.

“No arguing with religious warriors”

Max Weber had noted succinctly, “There is no arguing with religious warriors.” Arendt explains why. “For those who subscribe to them, religious ideologies have an irrefutable logic, one that makes no sense to nonbelievers because the premises are not of the common world and not related to common sense.”  As Young-Bruhel notes: “The so-called fundamentalisms that have emerged, with their very different histories, are perversions of Christianity and Islam: they are, in Arendt’s terms, no longer authentic religions but adaptations of religions for supranational political purposes and as such they perform many of the functions that the mid-twentieth-century ideologies of Nature and History did.”

Kashmir Issue and the right to belong to a human community

From Arendt’s point of view, “a crime against humanity is one that assaults the right to belong to a human community: the right not to be reduced to a mass, not to be made superfluous, not to be stateless and rightless. It is the right to be remembered truthfully in stories told about plural human beings by plural human beings, not to be erased from history.” The crux of Kashmir issue, as of religious minorities in ideological states, is call for right to belong to human community.  However, not even their own advocates/representatives clearly recognize this as they often come up with political propositions that come in conflict with other such rights claims.

The final court of appeal is life and when there is contempt against it, what can one say? Let us hope that reason would prevail to let life nurture and everyone becomes himself. One may conclude with an observation in Camus’ The Plague: “On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.”