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Monday, January 20, 2020

The Limits of Good Intentions

Can a citizen elite selflessly promote the greater good? This book’s answers are not sceptical enough.

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza | Published: August 17, 2013 5:47:49 am

Book: Revolution from Above: India’s Future and the ‘Citizen Elite’

Author: Dipankar Gupta

Publisher: Rupa

Price: Rs 495

Pages: 240

The instinct is right,to bring into public discussion the role of the elite in the making of a country’s future. But from an initial,and very valuable,insight on how the historical agency of the “elite of calling” acts in the promotion of the public good,Revolution from Above soon develops an argumentative strategy that limits itself to only providing verifying examples. There is no scepticism,no

tentativeness,no engagement with counterfactuals,no sense of the complexity of the historical process. Surprisingly,all one gets is the wide-eyed revelation of the new convert.

Elites have a big role in the making of history. There is no doubt about this. The subset of this argument,which

Dipankar Gupta makes in this book,is that “elites of calling” play an important role in the making of decent futures. The keywords in his argument are “decent futures” and “elites of calling”. From the larger argument,of the role of elites in general,Gupta makes only the smaller argument,of the role of the elites of calling,or citizen elites,who fight and work for policies and institutions that serve the public interest. This they are able to do because they can see further than all others and because they are altruistic and have a sense of fraternity. As historical agents,they are not self-interested but other-interested.

And this is where the problem with the book lies. It is too thin in its historical sociology,too believing in the altruism of the citizen elite. There is no detailed analysis of the internal dynamics of this particular form of historical agency. Many questions remain unaddressed. For example,what is it that inspires the elite of calling? What is the right mix of individual belief,historical circumstance,political location,and personality,which make it possible for the historical agents to bring about their desired outcomes? Why do some members of the elite achieve the status of the citizen elite while others do not? Is success a necessary condition for being considered a member of the elite of calling? Gupta choses safe examples,from Earl Grey to Disraeli,from Gandhi to Nehru,to make his case. How would he regard Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan?

Let me,however,return to his instinct of focussing on the role of elites. If he had done this with empirical rigour and theoretical nuance,he would have responded to a big deficiency in social sciences studies of India. Gupta’s theoretical sources in fashioning the term “elites of calling”,I believe,draws on the ideas of Max Weber and classical elite theorists like Pareto,Mosca,Michels and Burnham. From Weber he takes the idea of “calling” from the latter’s seminal essay “politics as a vocation” where the roots of the idea go back to the Christian idea of having a religious vocation. Weber sees a politician who has a calling as one who exhibits “vision,passion,and a sense of responsibility”. This gives him a calling. Those who do not have these attributes do not have a calling. Although it is not stated as such by Gupta,one can presume that the elite of calling also have these attributes and that is what makes them able to be a hammer that changes reality,and not a mirror that merely reflects it. This fact,that there are persons in history who are altruistic and have a sense of fraternity and who,because of this,hammer out a change in reality,is indeed insightful. It is worth considering but is it enough? Again from the elite theorists,Gupta draws on the idea that there are some in positions of power who rule on behalf of the masses,who speak for them and feed them political myths. This is what the elite of calling do but they do so because they have a sense of fraternity.

Here we enter a zone of ambiguity in Gupta’s work. When he talks of elites,is he referring to individuals or to collectives? His examples are all of individuals although he uses the collective term to describe them. This has profound implications for social agency. We need to ask if the citizen elite is a Nietzschean superman or a part of a collective that produces collective action that has the profound outcomes that Gupta describes? I suspect he means the former. Then why call them citizen elite? If he had limited his theoretical frame to “politics as a vocation”,his argument would have been more defensible. By using the term elites,in the plural,he invites us to engage with elite theory and the thesis of ruling that it offers. We live in a world of the predatory elite. This predatory elite is missing in his story although it is the dominant narrative of our times. The altruistic members of the elite,like Gandhi and Nehru,do not define our modern democratic nation. We would that they defined our present and future but that would be wishful thinking.

The book,however,is well written,as one would expect,with a fine turn of phrase and delightful comment. Reading it is fun. The comment that made me laugh is the one about us academics who think with our hands: one the one hand and on the other hand. So,look, “no hands”.

Peter Ronald deSouza is interim director of the International Centre for Human Development

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