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Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: Across world, foundational ideas of major political systems are under challenge

The foundational frameworks iconically represented by Madison, Mao, Maududi and Mandela are floundering.

The foundational frameworks iconically represented by Madison, Mao, Maududi and Mandela are floundering.

The extraordinary protests by women in Iran. The growing repression needed to sustain the Communist Party Congress in China. Anxieties over the quality of liberal democracy. The looming political crisis in South Africa. These all seem like disparate, unconnected anxieties. But in a larger historical arc, they suggest that we might be in the midst of a global legitimation crisis. The normative horizons within which politics was conducted in different parts of the world are simultaneously being questioned. During the Cold War, the basic terms of ideological competition were defined in terms of economic systems — capitalism vs communism. Or another axis is authoritarianism versus freedom. But there might be another way of thinking about the world. This is in terms of different “foundational” frameworks that have provided the starting point for thinking about politics.

At the first cut, take four foundational questions. In the Western world and other countries like India, the horizon was broadly some version of liberal, representative constitutional democracy. In a large part of the world, from Pakistan to Egypt, there was a quest for some version of modern Islamic constitutionalism, reconciling the sovereignty of God with the requirements of the modern world. In Africa, the political and moral aspiration of politics was shaped by trying to think of a political form that could be an effective bulwark against the creation of the colour line and imperialism in the organisation of the world system. And China has, for the better part of its recent history, been shaped by the idea of the party-state as a distinctive political form.

So, different regions have a “foundational” question within which politics is conducted. These horizons are fleshed out in a variety of ways, some better and worse than others. They are often challenged. They all have to be embedded in different national traditions. But they are foundational in the sense that any plausible answer to the question of political legitimation in those societies must make reference to, or flesh out the meaning of this starting point. Countries like Pakistan, Iran and Egypt, have to take “Islamic” as a starting point, even if they interpret its meaning differently. Liberal democracies work within the entrenched “liberal” principles, however they might be interpreted. Most varieties of Chinese political thought, including many forms of neo-Confucianism, take the Party-State as an institutional form with which to work. Often, in these countries, the distinction between the “Left” and “Right” or “authoritarian” and “liberal” versions is a distinction within their foundational question; they all claim to be the true inheritors of this foundational legacy. Often, this foundational question is deeply institutionalised, not easy to shake off.

The Party-State as a distinctive 20th-century political form involved the thought that the Party would be a vanguard political formation that overcame, as Mao put it, the principal contradictions of society and catapult it to the next stage of development. All social mediation was to be carried out within the Party. In the Chinese case, the Party was also a stand-in for national identity as a whole. In China, in particular, the Party-State has a remarkable history, unleashing both immense violence but also creating unprecedented development success. But does the party face a legitimation crisis? Perhaps in two senses. First, its ability to manage the principal economic contradictions will be open to question. Second, it will require more control and repression to retain its grip on power. Neither of these challenges means the party will collapse. It still has the nationalism engine to shore it up. But it will increasingly face legitimation crises.

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If the Party-State owes its strongest version to Mao, that of theo-democracy was shaped by Abul A’la al-Maududi, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. This was the project of reconciling an acknowledgement of the formal sovereignty of God, with modern democracy, and a theological role for clerics. Iran is one version of this project; Pakistan, half-heartedly another, and Qutb in Egypt a third. This model has been under strain in two respects. Even in Maududi, its insistence on politically, not just socially, sanctifying patriarchy was bound to evoke resistance of the kind we are now seeing in Iran. And its inability to handle the contradictions that come from an allegiance to notions of heresy and blasphemy in turn produces conflict. This framework has never stabilised enough to bring peace or prosperity. But it has enduring power in that it is proving hard to jettison.

Mandela might be the iconic figure in the battle against Apartheid. But so much of African political thought in the 20th century — from Fanon to Cesaire — was haunted by the deep organising principle of power in international politics: The colour line as a deeply oppressive basis of subordination. African socialists and pan-Africanists were in search of a political form that could give Africa effective political agency. This project has been floundering for a while. But the South African experiment was meant not just to give ballast to the continent because of its power, but as an example. But South Africa is struggling to become the flag bearer of this project.

James Madison’s version of democracy is arguably the most influential because it was the least ambitious. The Party-State wanted a vanguard function for the Party. The Madisonian party was less exalted. No party could represent the whole. The party was organised around interests. Social stability could be secured by orderly competition and rotation of power. Combined with the promise of individual liberty, this form of government would not only be stable, but produce prosperity, and require the least coercion. This model has a crisis of its own. In most democracies, including the US, we can no longer be as confident about peaceful transitions of power. There is impatience with individual liberty. The free competition of different groups has really descended into democracies being controlled by oligarchies, less able to solve collective problems.

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The foundational frameworks iconically represented by Madison, Mao, Maududi and Mandela are floundering. (Our Mahatma was already killed in 1948). To be sure, the crisis is not symmetrical. Liberal democracies have great regenerative power; the Party-State has proved to be more resilient than its critics suggested. The politics internal to these horizons might be overshadowed by global problems, climate change and strategic competition. Nationalism might be used as more of an answer to this crisis. But it is unclear, as we grow weary of old horizons, what else will come in their wake.

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

First published on: 06-10-2022 at 04:17 IST
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