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The year of the will

We no longer trust politics, language, institutions. We look for saviours and leaders who have the power to act on the world

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
December 31, 2016 4:30:03 am
Cash withdrawal limit from #ATMs increased to Rs 4,500 from Rs 2,500, effective January 1 A world in which its leaders vie for attention on Twitter, around nuclear weapons and surgical strikes, is not a reassuring one.

Our civil calendar new year, not withstanding the sociability associated with it, marks a profoundly lonely moment. Other forms of “new year” are about the world changing: The seasons changing, the planets turning, or the year itself signifying something new. The new year supposedly tracked some rhythm, of nature, of the cosmic cycle, or even fate. The rhythm may not always be consoling, but it brought the expectation of change. The civil new year marks a change of date. Most people rightly treat it as a matter of indifference. But there are rituals associated with it. Usually these are endowed significance not by the promise that the world will change but by an exhortation that we should, as individuals, change.

The “new year resolution” is a profoundly subjective act. The year does not promise you change; you promise change to the year. It is an exhortation to change oneself, find new willpower, and start a new personal regimen or hobby. You might say, it is the type of |resolution suited to modernity: Men and women, no longer prisoners of rhythms they cannot control; we have at least the power to order ourselves, no matter what the world portends. The new year resolve, if it exists at all, is about care of the self.

But care of the self is often overshadowed by two concerns. On a lighter vein, as the wise Mark Twain knew, a resolution to oneself has about as much sanctity as money printed by oneself. He wrote: “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.”

There is a reassuring stability in this human frailty. But resolutions of the self also require a degree of certainty in our public world. How much certainty men and women can assume varies considerably. The world, despite a decline in poverty, still has an unconscionably appalling degree of poverty, always the greatest threat to human dignity. But now the normative frameworks that anchored our politics and societies are up for grabs in an almost unprecedented way. Populations, particularly in liberal democracies, are increasingly finding the status quo unbearable; many revolted and in that revolt felt empowered.

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The net result of that tumult is a radical reopening of fundamental questions of the kind we have not seen in a generation. First, in the economy, there is not just increasing pessimism whether the promise of endless growth, productivity and jobs can continue in a vein that reconciles the interests of all sections of the globe — capital and labour, the North and the South. Second, in a long time, the basic constitutional structures of a liberal democracy are going to be seriously tested by a challenging combination of populism and growth in executive power. In the contest between plutocratic incrementalism and soft authoritarianism, the latter seems to be winning. Third, the values of liberal societies, the preference for liberty over authority, deliberation over propaganda, dispersal of power rather than its concentration, diversity as an asset rather than a liability, civility rather than aggression, are now a source of contempt. Liberal has become a “sneer” word, without any thought of what will replace it.

Fourth, globalisation, the greater material and human integration of the global economy, is seriously under question. Nationalism is back with a vengeance, not as a harbinger of a new civic commitment, but as a new collective narcissism. Fifth, the balance of global power will also become uncertain. A world in which its leaders vie for attention on Twitter, around nuclear weapons and surgical strikes, is not a reassuring one. Sixth, even in the social space, new forms of communication have transformed our sense of self in ways whose implications are not clear. Social media has been empowering and democratising in some ways; it has been divisive and abusive in many others. But it has altered the boundaries of the public and the private, the sacred and the profane, the serious and the trivial in ways we still do not understand. Finally, it is not clear whether the incremental resolve the world had shown to save the planet from climate change will survive.

Such a moment of crisis can be a moment of regeneration; the opportunity to look beyond settled complacencies. But these challenges will not follow the rhythms of the calendar, or be amenable to individual resolve. If anything, the sense of isolation, the gap between our intentions and the shape of the world as it emerges, is only likely to grow. Gramsci’s ever prescient advice “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” was made in the face of disappointment over the possibility of revolution, of the world taking shape in a way that conforms to our aspirations for it. The return of the “will” is in a sense a sign of disappointment with the world.


We can no longer trust ordinary politics, with its messy compromises, procedures and mediations. We no longer trust language, since common meanings have been eroded under the weight of partisan misunderstandings. We no longer trust the intellect and reason: They are too elitist and compromised. We no longer trust institutions since they are too corrupt. Perhaps this is a reason why we are looking for saviours and redeemers, leaders who by sheer dint of will can change our politics. When the intellect suggests a world of difficulty and complexity, the only way out is acts of assertion that can remind us of our power to act on the world.

So, the convulsions of 2016 were not about recovering a new idealism, a new sociability. It was about looking for exemplars of “optimism of the will,” leaders who promise to amass power in themselves to stamp their authority on the world. Our fates are in the hands of Supreme Leaders; 2017 will be a test for how well-founded or misplaced this faith has been; is this “triumph of the will” a road to paradise or perdition?” And if the latter, what is plan B?

But we still have our new year’s resolutions. Oh wait! It turns out in 2016 we are not even sure whether our new year resolution should involve cutting cholesterol as sharply as we thought we were supposed to. And social scientists are telling us we don’t understand happiness. Happy New Year anyway!


The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express

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First published on: 31-12-2016 at 04:30:03 am
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