Tuesday, Feb 07, 2023

Rule by messiahs

The Aam Aadmi Party's appeal to a 'moral sense', and not to the intellect, is not accidental.

I do not doubt that the leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party are honest, well-meaning persons who may even bring some small material benefits to the people of Delhi, as the Dravidian parties have done in Tamil Nadu despite their alleged “corruption”. But the AAP believes, by its own admission, that honest, well-intentioned and technocratic effort is all that is needed to solve social problems. This belief per se would not matter, but the hype around the AAP, generated partly by itself, is meant to hardsell this ideology. If one believes, for instance, that the AAP has “jolted the system” for the benefit of the people, which is the buzz these days, then one must ipso facto believe that the “system” is entirely reducible to venality and “corruption”, that socio-economic structures are of little relevance, and that categories like “feudalism” and “capitalism” are inconsequential. Such naïve technocratic “do good”-ing views have always been pervasive among the professional middle classes in India. They are now seeking to acquire intellectual hegemony on the back of the AAP’s electoral performance.

Since any scope for “theory” arises only because the intentions behind actions do not coincide with their consequences, the belief that honest, well-intentioned actions are all that is necessary amounts to a negation of any need for social theory, of any need for thought beyond mere technocratic nuts and bolts. The AAP ideology, in short, apotheosises non-thought. The fact that its appeal is to a “moral sense” and not to the intellect is not accidental. It is intrinsic to its ideology.

I consider this not only wrong but also fundamentally anti-democratic (notwithstanding all its celebration of the “aam aadmi”). What is more, it is the antithesis of the Left position, which apotheosises thought. Let me elaborate. Explaining all our social ills in terms of “corruption” or venality is a trivial, if not tautological, exercise. To say that caste exists because our politicians are too corrupt to get rid of it trivialises the enormity of the problem. And the same is true of “hunger”, “poverty”, “unemployment” and “inflation”. Socio-economic structures, not being malleable, resist the efforts of well-meaning persons to improve the conditions of the people. To ignore the resistance of these structures is downright wrong.

But if structures are supposed to have no resistance, then any need for a collective agency to overcome such resistance also disappears. The need for people to be engaged in action, to act as a collective force with sufficient strength to overcome such resistance, disappears. All they have to do is to elect periodically a set of well-meaning, non-corrupt and technologically competent persons who will “look after” their interests. This is substitutism par excellence — a group of “morally upright” and technically competent persons can act for the people whose agency role can be delegated to them. This is anti-democratic, since its conception of democracy is not people acting as a collective subject but a group of messiahs, consisting of well-intentioned technocrats who alone have “expertise”, acting permanently on their behalf.

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Besides, this perception is opposed to that of the Left (whose place many see the AAP as taking). Bertolt Brecht had written: “Hungry man, reach for the book.” To overcome hunger requires the overcoming of the social structure that produces hunger. This requires, in turn, collective action on the part of the hungry, to succeed in which they must understand the structure and hence must “reach for the book”. Marx’s apology to French workers in the preface to the French edition of Capital because of the denseness of the first few pages of that book expressed his belief that the working class had to read in order to fight capitalism. The AAP ideology, which amounts to apotheosising non-thought, is therefore opposed to the Left ideology that apotheosises thought. The latter does so because it sees people as transforming themselves into a collective subject; implicit in the former is their being fixed in the role of perennial objects. I find the aggressive pushing of the AAP perception therefore quite disturbing, indeed almost as disturbing as the silence of several progressive public intellectuals over it.

Their silence perhaps stems from the fact that they see in the AAP a potential force to thwart the current quest for power by the communal-fascist Hindutva forces. But the AAP’s ability to do so is questionable: a substantial segment of its support base consists of people who make no secret of their wish to vote for Narendra Modi in the parliamentary elections, and the AAP has done little to counter Modi’s “appeal”. It is naïve to believe that the threat of communal-fascism can be countered surreptitiously, by such tactful silence. For intellectuals not to speak against the dumbing down of public discourse on these grounds makes little sense. True, the AAP alone is not responsible for such dumbing down; other non-Left parties are perhaps even more guilty. But the AAP’s doing so is particularly disturbing because, first, it claims not to be like other parties; second, it is enjoying such a high profile; and third, it is actually making a virtue of its non-thought.

My argument may appear odd: hasn’t the AAP consulted the people even on the question of its forming a government and thereby given them a subject role? How then can it be accused of substitutism, of conceptually undermining the need for the collective political agency of the people? In fact, the so-called consultation with the people is a symptom precisely of the lack of theory I find disturbing in the AAP. The people can become a collective political agency only on the basis of a theory. Not to have a theory around which they can be mobilised for acting against the structures, but to consult them in their empirical individuality on specific questions, no matter on how large a scale this is done, still constitutes a conceptual undermining of their agency role.


The joke about the British Labour party used to be that it decided its programme on the basis of opinion polls. Any party that does so cannot take on socio-economic structures; indeed, if anything, its apotheosis of non-thought strengthens them.

The writer is former professor of economics at JNU, Delhi

First published on: 08-01-2014 at 16:26 IST
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