Welcome, the age of fear | Ashis Nandy
June 26, 2009, 7:27 pm
Filed under: Global, Indian Subcontinent

* * * * *

Issue # 596 | April 2009

Source: Seminar

WHEN the likes of W.H. Auden and Erich Fromm announced the age of anxiety a few years after World War II, it was obvious that their point of reference was the modern West, with its full-blown middle-class culture, increasingly unfettered individualism, and its triumphant vision of an urban-industrial future for humankind. In such a world there was place for fear, but for only those fears that were adjuncts to modern society and its anxieties – the fears of loneliness, anomie, alienation and other such lofty states of mind. Anxiety, after all, was a modern disease. Even psychoanalytic theory seemed to endorse that modern connection; it proclaimed that anxiety did not usually have a fantasy behind it; fear did, particularly if it was unrealistic.

Hence, many who wrote on such issues knew, but did not take seriously the less respectable fears that stalked the Southern hemisphere – the fear of starvation, loss of livelihood and vocation, humiliation, the fears of loss of self and loss of agency and, above all, insecurity about personal and collective survival. These were seen as correlates of underdevelopment and, thus, by-products of an earlier stage of history, anachronistically surviving in the contemporary world due to the irrationality and cussedness of ignorant, change-resistant societies at the peripheries of the world. Implicitly, progress was redefined as the journey from the age of fear to the age of anxiety.

It took time for small groups of intellectuals to recognize that even in the modern West, in the interstices of anxiety lurked more primitive fears – fears of annihilation that some of the great discoveries of science such as nuclear weaponry and biological warfare threatened, fears of totalitarianism and machine violence that had outlived Auschwitz but not the Gulags, and the fear of dissent that made censorship and surveillance a matter of life and death in a large number of polities that still constituted the other West. Fears about survival, freedom, self-expression and identity were not the monopoly of the Southern world. Italian sociologist and futurist Eleonora Masini’s work, for example, showed that the fear of nuclear annihilation, banished from the public sphere, did enter the psychological world of European children.

Now, just when some intellectuals have begun to assure us of the end of history and the idea of democracy has become triumphant enough to force even recalcitrant police states to claim that they are moving towards liberal-democratic ideals, just when there seems to be a global consensus on the beauties of capitalism, mass culture and knowledge society, a new age of fear has begun to unfold before our unbelieving eyes, this time at the very centre of the globalizing world. The coming decades may belong to a form of terror that threatens to change our public life by setting the pace of all debates on individual and collective security.

Yet, terror was always there, though often invisible and unacknowledged, in the political cultures of liberal democracy and capitalism; it has always constituted the underside of western modernity, especially its Jacobin variations. It is the terror without which, Robespierre believed, virtue was impotent. Indeed, all ideas of progress that have dominated the world since the eighteenth century, including the ideas and ideologies that legitimized the two early attempts at globalization – the Atlantic slave trade and modern colonialism – have believed in the emancipatory potentials of terror.

The concept of the revolutionary role of vanguards in radical theory and the use of the idea of revolutionary violence to transubstantiate cruelty and mass violence, as S.N. Balagangadhara might put it, are merely extensions of the same tradition. When in the first half of the twentieth century an effort was made to set up an alternative path to globalization by the socialist countries, the first thing each one of them did, whatever else they did or did not, was to set up a terror machine to serve the causes of ‘liberation’ and ‘progress’.

That European belief in the socially creative role of terror has now come home to roost. There is some poetic justice in the efforts of others, who have often been at the receiving end of a world system of which the idea of legitimate terror has been an inalienable part, now trying to dismantle the system using the same technology. Terror as a means of actualizing values such as justice, liberty and equality now faces terror that invokes the same values and defines itself as counter-terror.

For some reason, anguish, the third constituent of the triad that includes anxiety and fear, seems to be in short supply today, despite growing belief that we have to combat anguish the way we fight anxiety and fear. As I grow old, I notice lesser anguish and decreasing sensitivity to anguish around me. I also see, in media and in public discourse, consistent and systematic efforts to marginalize intellectuals and thinkers who think that there are reasons to be anguished about things such as the environment, the growing violence acquiring nihilistic tones, threats to life support systems of smaller cultures and communities at the peripheries of the modern political economy, the impunity with which genocidal projects are implemented, the way cruelty and torture have made their way into the reigning culture of politics, and the pockets of utter destitution within a culture of consumerism that is obscene in the way it flaunts itself.

Anguish is in short supply today. Yet, the anguished are seen as spoilsports, impractical romantics or doomsday prophets, not in tune with the contemporary liberal-capitalist vision of a good society. The tacit assumption is that technology and managerial expertise will take care of every problem we face today, including the ethical ones.

As a result, the happiness industry is thriving. So are the instant vendors of bliss – from the gurus that India now routinely exports to the agony aunts in Sunday newspaper columns, from the expanding domain of virtual reality to the flourishing guidebooks on how to conquer happiness. Happiness is now something like a medal in an athletic meet, to be won after hard work under expert guidance. And one of the hurdles you have to learn to cross while reaching the goal of happiness is anguish.

Anguish is no longer the prerogative of the socially sensitive and the ontologically alert, confronting the human predicament. It is part of an unnecessary baggage called unhappiness. The new stage of capitalism we have entered also has a cultivated festive style. It has proscribed unhappiness by making it unfashionable. Unhappiness is now seen as an intermediate state between mental health and ill-health. And like the poor, who are held responsible for their poverty in the mainstream culture of capitalism, the unhappy are held culpable for their unhappiness.

Unhappiness is now permissible only in literature, art and cinema. At one time, in some police states psychiatrists diagnosed the unhappy and the anguished as mentally ill, for daring to be unhappy in a utopia. Now anguish has been included in the syndrome of unhappiness. Only its suppression has become more subtle; anguish on the state of the world is called return to a bucolic past, for we have now reportedly arrived at the end of history. Anguish is now defined as a form of self-indulgence and puritanical self-mortification.

It is sporadically said, with a dramatic flourish, that we have nothing to fear except fear itself. Does that aphorism admit a concept of courage that includes the courage to be anguished about the state of the world? Does that courage acknowledge the despair that lies behind the psychopathic, nihilistic terror that haunts large part of the world today? Where does fear end and anguish begin? Towards the end of the Mahabharata, after the ungodly have been defeated in a fratricidal war, and after the five brothers who fought for justice and virtue have won and the eldest of them has been crowned king, the new king, Yudhisthira, instead of being elated, is anguished.

He says, ‘Alas, having defeated the enemy, we ourselves have been defeated… The defeated have become victorious… This, our victory is twined into defeat.’ This anguish is not something Oriental, esoteric and defeatist. Nor is it a by-product of a tragic vision of life. It is an admission that there is a continuity between the self and its others that is only temporarily interrupted by the responsibility to confront evil. It is at the same time a courageous defiance of the conventional idea of victory and defeat as a zero-sum game.

Elsewhere, I have told the story of how the ominous date 9/11 marks two beginnings bridged by a strange coincidence. On that day in 2001, the power and the presence of terror captured the imagination of the ordinary citizens the world over and initiated a new age of fear. And the Pathans, the main ethnic community in Afghanistan and North-West Pakistan, soon became associated with the tragedy as the ultimate symbols of Islamic terror for having produced the Taliban and hosting Osama bin Laden.

However, another 9/11 took place, unheralded and unsung, in 1906 at Johannesburg in South Africa, at the time a proudly authoritarian, racist, police state. That day satyagraha or militant nonviolence was born. Though the theory and the strategy was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s, the first person to proclaim the principle from a public platform at Johannesburg was Abdul Gani, a Muslim merchant, and their closest associate was Haji Habib, another Muslim. It has also been said that one source of Gandhi’s nonviolence was his mother’s religious beliefs. She belonged to a small Hindu sect, the Pranamis, known for their uncompromising pacifism and the deep impress of Islam on their religious life.

Do the coincidence of dates and the Islamic connection have something to tell us? One clue to an answer is that, later on, when satyagraha became a major movement in colonial India, the Pathans led by Abdul Gaffar Khan played a stellar role in it. Gandhi himself called them the finest practitioners of art of militant nonviolence and he traced this to the valorous, martial past of the Pathans. At the height of their movement, there were 100, 000 participants in it called Khudai Khidmatgars, God’s servants, and they faced every form of police atrocity from a colonial regime that had only a few years ago fought three bitter wars in Afghanistan against the Pathans. But there was not one instance when a Pathan faltered in his or her commitment to nonviolence.

Does this odd attempt to flout global common sense by blending religion and politics something to tell us today? One answer is that the two models of self-sacrificial intervention, one violent and the other nonviolent, struggle for dominance as traits or potentialities in each Pathan or, for that matter, each person or community. Global forces outside the control of a person and the geopolitics of national interests converging on a community determine which potentiality is unleashed. If Gandhi helped unleash one kind of potentiality, Soviet occupation, superpower rivalry and Pakistan’s politically ambitious army released potentialities of another kind.

It is absolutely essential in the latter form of thought engineering to create large-scale meaninglessness and despondency and, then, offer an emulsion of a closed mind and a closed ideology as a cure-all. Physicist and social activist Pervez Hoodbhoy may be correct in his diagnosis of drone-like killing machines, the suicide bombers produced by fanatics, but the focus, I insist, must be on the assembly line, not the product. In some ways the polities of South Asia have failed to capture the imagination of their youth; sizeable sections of them are in search of a cause and are willing to be shot for it like mad dogs in at least five of the seven countries in the region. I shamefully admit being anguished that we have not seriously explored how the powerful of the world may have helped to set up their feared private and public ghosts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This essay is not an invitation to anguish. Its goals are mundane and less than heroic; it reiterates what we mostly know but try hard not to know. It suggests that the fears now stalking the upper rungs of global politics are the fears with which large parts of the world, including sections of Indian society, have lived for decades and, in some cases, centuries. Unable to take control of their lives, increasingly victimized by forces that they do not understand and often cannot even identify, if they in their desperation have flayed their hands and struck out at random, even normal political pragmatism demands that we scan the sources of their desperation. We must spot the reasons that have prompted them to sometimes knowingly sacrifice their lives for causes that give meaning in an otherwise meaningless life.

If realism and self-interest mean more than mere petty profiteering and bureaucratic quibbling, they should push us to admit that we can survive the new age of fear only by lifting the siege on communities caught in the hinges of time for the sake of causes that make little sense to them and enter their lives as natural calamities – national security, development, progress, state-building and nation-formation.

I am not trying to complicate a simple act of terror that targets ordinary citizens living ordinary lives. I know that a growing proportion of the victims of modern terrorism are children, women and the elderly. But we also battle terrorism at a time when the continuities between victims and perpetrators are becoming clearer and all efforts to design neat solutions to human problems are turning out to be inhuman and self-defeating. To steal Tarun Tejpal’s evocative metaphor, the untold story of our assassins is gradually turning out to be a story about us, for their fears and ours are not so radically different.

This indivisibility of terror we have learnt to deny. Worse, the more blatant the indivisibility, the more aggressive and strident our denials become. We love to talk of jihadi terrorism without mentioning Kashmir and Gujarat 2002, and we love to believe that the militancy in Punjab in the late 1980s and 1990s had nothing to do with the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. The furious arguments on the menace of Maoist violence in India never mention the way we have treated our tribal communities, the mainstay of Indian Maoism today. Nor have official histories and historians documented our gory record in Nagaland and Manipur. The culture of the Indian state is what it is today because of our dedicated efforts to ignore its criminalization. One of the great paradoxes of Indian politics is that the police, the bureaucrats and the politicians enjoy the least respect and trust of the citizens according to every opinion poll, but they become more trustworthy when it comes to terrorism, national security and international relations.

At the centre of that process of criminalization is the use of ruthless, often extra-legal force in the name of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, applauded by much of the media and intelligentsia, backed by the much-heralded Indian middle class. We fear sections of our citizens because we know what we have done to them. And we see all of our neighbours embroiled in a similar exercise. The Sri Lankan state tries hard to dissociate the problem of Tamil terrorism from its consistent record of discrimination against the Tamils and the Colombo riots of 1983; Pakistan’s civil establishment hopes to resist army rule without confronting the army’s role in the Bangladesh genocide. Bangladesh in turn grudges Chakmas the rights that it claimed from Pakistan.

Security in any polity is indivisible; unlike wealth, memories are not that easy to lock up. Terror today is the fear that defines the age of fear and each day it becomes more anomic. However woolly-headed and impractical I may sound, I insist that such terror cannot be fought only through an efficient use of arms. Otherwise, after fighting terror so ruthlessly for more than six decades, Israel would not have been so insecure. Indeed, known all over the world for its brutal anti-terrorist measures, the Israeli state itself has become, in the words of a retired officer of its own army, a gangster state. If I may revert to my own cliché, you can afford to choose your friends carelessly but need to be careful when choosing an enemy because, in the long run, you begin to resemble, perhaps not your enemy, but certainly as you imagine him to be.


* Sections of this essay draw upon presentations made at the World Social Summit at Rome on ‘Fearless: Discussion on How to Combat Global Anguish’, 24-26 September 2008; Forum 2000 at Prague on ‘Openness and Fundamentalism in the 21st Century’, 12-14 October 2008; and the Jaipur Literary Festival, 22-25 January 2009. Work on this essay was done when the author was an Open Society Fellow at the Central European University at Budapest during September-December 2008. The essay has been written for a forthcoming festschrift for Swami Agnivesh.

Comments Off on Welcome, the age of fear | Ashis Nandy

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: