Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2014 > In Defence of the Chatterati

Mainstream, VOL LII No 34 August 16, 2014 - Independence Day Special

In Defence of the Chatterati

Friday 15 August 2014, by Uttam Sen

We face a problem of value-judgment today. Place and time have something to do with it. Post-independence, people from the older cosmopolitan cities of Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai were most visibly “political”. The others are now being seen and heard. We had an amorphous “intelligentsia”, which wielded power and influence disproportionate to its middle class genesis, but was bona fide nevertheless. This configuration was spawned by a rich-agrarian—political-party-bureaucracy alignment. It was contended that the post-colonial state had a bourgeoisie which was semi-autonomous owing to the concessions it had wrung from colonialism, despite being more on the periphery than the centre of global capital. It had been in the back channel of the transfer of power, after having allied with the Congress from the thirties in between World Wars and the Depression that had made the colonial power more amenable to financial and political interplay than earlier. “Political consciousness”, or an awareness of one’s circumstances, was often grounded in the memories and convictions of the independence struggle which at certain interludes reflected almost all hues of the national spectrum. But it was filtered by the aforesaid conjunction.

By the late sixties and seventies, causes celebres like Vietnam and Bangladesh were precipitating ideas as the basis of economic and political theory and policy. The border conflict with China and the two wars with Pakistan were to change the direction of political economy in the subcontinent. Articulate, middle-class people were hemmed by politics, and quite possibly near-the-bone economics as deregulation and liberalisation in the sense of relaxation of government control began to touch their lives. Their expression in the public sphere, sometimes as unstated auxiliaries of the reigning dispo-sition, at others as adversaries, made them extensions of the cut and thrust of universal debate. The discerning follower of discourse could have been anything from a doctor to an engineer to a poet or radical.

A bit further down the line the erosion of state capitalism, though still a potent factor, and a political party virtually embodying the entire body politic, scattered the “intelligentsia” to the benefit of narrower territorial sentience. The ensuing formations were always simmering below the surface, in the inward-looking subsets of class, caste, and region where primary socialisation dinned in benchmarks of secular conformity in public space and more particula-rised commitments in private, often familial or communal, precincts.

Significantly, the 19th century had produced highbrow power houses of the most self-sustaining, liberated character in India, as a result of the scientific and consequent political innovations in Europe. If we still have a national consciousness, it is because of the dialectical process that engaged the elite they created with the rest of us. Modernisation or Westernisation were not necessarily a break with the past because the contentious “Renaissance” often sought to conceptualise the local in relation to the universal. The native and the alien co-existed, just as much as the earthly and the extra-terrestrial! The political party or organi-sation was an important departure, though individual religious retreat or subsequent collective endeavour can also be factored in. Individualism in the sense of free thinking or libertarianism was the exception that proved the rule. Even the likely breeding ground of the nuclear family was a relatively recent (roughly mid-20th century) product.

Even so, it is a moot point whether the other-wise repressive yoke of colonialism also contributed to the defiantly autonomous world-views of individuals who were striving for the liberation of the “periphery” vis-à-vis the “Centre”, to provide a cerebral framework which the enlightened or educated Indian intuitively carries even today.

This was not necessarily subconscious because new-found Western humanism, based on scientific, or logical, thinking, was a holistic concept in which the social framework had to be emancipated to be productive and creative. Some of its current travails have been traced back to the inconsistency with which the new European bourgeoisie, after acquiring the modern means of production that swept feudalism aside, resiled on its wider commitment to society and the unjust control of foreign territories it had occupied. Jean Jacques Rousseau, credited with the most seminal intellectual contribution to the French Revolution, questioned the ethical contours of society left behind by mavericks, in response to the dislocation they had created in his time.

It is just a thought that either in defiance of the physical laws of scientific determinism which have been both forcefully reiterated and repudiated as the rationale of human action, or a confirmation of some unexplained intricacy, the Weberian construct of the “bhadralok” and his affiliates has been instrumental in arriving at a position to scrutinise a much more mate-rially prosperous condition. The “bhadralok’s” superior disdain for the commons was inimical to the rusticity Rousseau celebrated. All the same, his tenacity made him conscious of a world beyond his own political frontiers much before globalisation and anticipated a situation in which he would be a participant.

His moral sense of right and wrong could be determined by an understanding of what was taking place in the world, not entirely alien to the reasoning when the Indian intelligentsia had a place in the sun, and the middle class was a hedge against indeterminate winds of change. Retrospection today is confirming that the rate of return from capital is inversely related to overall growth, to foster which equity has to be strengthened within nation-states and between them. Strife is symptomatic of its absence.

The perception of the existing state of things totally tied to the moment ostensibly eliminates the baggage of the supposedly self-legitimising meta narrative but adds some of its own in localised insights that are stretched to fit the big picture. Our political consciousness springs from a continuity, however ill-defined, and is vindicated by a spontaneous curiosity intrinsic to bread and butter compulsions. The author of Capital in the 21st century, among other things, an unprecedented compilation of personal income data through defining moments of modern (principally Western, but not without attention to the emergent economies) history, provides moral support:

“What public policies and institutions bring us closer to ideal society? This unabashed aspiration to study good and evil, about which every citizen is an expert, may make some readers smile. To be sure, it is an aspiration that often goes unfulfilled. But it is also a necessary, indispen-sable goal, because it is all too easy for social scientists to remove themselves from public debate and political confrontation and content themselves with the role of commentators on or demolishers of the views and data of others.”

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.