The Problematic of Modern Violence

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Ali Mirsepassi

1. What are the conceptual and discursive underpinnings of modern violence?

Modern violence as practice/discourse undoubtedly finds some of its roots in traditional violence, rather as modern pacifism as practice/discourse is traceable to traditional pacifist notions – however often rendered unrecognizable through profound and unconscious mutations. Let us take as illustrative examples three defining moments in modernity, each a demonstration of the interdependence/overlapping of change between the ‘modern’ present and the ‘traditional’ past, and the West and the non-Western parts of the world: the English Civil War/Locke, the French Revolution/Enlightenment and the project of a new global juridical order following World War Two. Each was also an experience of traumatic violence, bringing into question the relation between rapidly changing existence and traditions of value, requiring radical adjustments in institutional accretions, the authority of ideals, imaginings and thought over choice and conduct. If these three moments do not represent a teleological advance towards Condorcet’s “true perfection of mankind” through “reason”, they certainly represent crucial experiences of learning.

1. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and Letter Concerning Toleration were seminal texts in delinking political violence from claims to a religious ontology, the discursive essence of the European religious wars; yet they qualified new categories of people as potential targets of violence for the emerging progressive state. Locke justified the exploitation and coercion of the New World in a new secular Providence of productivity – even as he derived a conception of modern political rights under Christian inspiration. His general principles, although couched in the universal language of natural law, are derived from Biblical authority in asserting that the “state of nature” is a state of equality with the earth given to mankind in common; development as changing property relations through enclosure in England and colonization in America is conceived in secularized Protestant religious terms as the achievement of the “elect”. Locke’s secularist argument for freedom of thought, meanwhile, states that choice of religion expresses an “inward persuasion of the mind” without which “nothing can be acceptable to God” – a response to the devastating experience of religious violence and state collapse during the English Civil War.

2. The French Revolution was a global event, linked to the loss of French imperial footholds to England in India, China and Canada in three worldwide scale wars. The French Revolutionary Terror – in spite of its adamant ideological refusal to recognize any origins – drew from a resource in the messianic/eschatological imaginary. It rejected the historical past as a totality – yet Voltaire’s famous critique of religion carried the tacit structure of the Catholic argument against Protestantism in saying that only unity of consensus can guarantee genuine truth (i.e. mathematics versus religious sects). We see the unconscious transmission of underlying discursive structures: in this case one with a potentially conflicting relation to Voltaire’s more consciously held ideal of tolerance. The French Revolutionary actors themselves, while shifting their focus from transcendence to the socio-political order, borrowed religious language and conceptual orientations while also pursuing political action as a quest for ultimate meaning.

3. Finally, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights presents a rationalized legal framework – following the catastrophic trauma of the Second World War and the Holocaust -crystallizing the prerequisites for human dignity previously expressed through internally contradictory discursive universes in the major world religions.
From these examples, we see that modernity and tradition have never fitted – despite dominant modes of imagining following the French Revolution – into a sharply opposed inside/outside schema. This fact has profoundly complicated our understanding of historical relations between the West and non-Western countries, bringing the dichotomy itself into doubt. The dichotomy exists, as Said saw, in the productive imagination, itself a site of struggle, contestation and ‘inner violence.’ Theoretical attempts to define and control the problem of modern power through establishing the authority of specific modern identities – efforts at closure – seem to have produced more violence. This pattern of modern self assurance was initiated in Hobbes meticulous scientific framing of the inevitability of state violence, further elaborated in Comte’s “final history”, and was troubled by Nietzsche’s destabilization of scientific discourse through revelations of the unthought, i.e., subverting necessity through demonstrations of contingency and demoting ‘modernity’ to merely one more moment in time with no fixed ontological status. It seems that the principle of non-identity, expressed tacitly in the open structure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is more appropriate to the creation of democratic modernity than specific metaphysical claims implying bounded identities. Neither modernity nor tradition have a monopoly on violence: non-violence should be the aim of their multiple instances of synthesis in the present, as non-violence rather than a fixed conception of reason is the essence of democratic modernity as an open socio-political order. This is what we have learned from these three defining moments of modernity: a dialogic politics of reconciliation based on non-violence is more compatible with democracy than a politics of absolute ends based on a dogmatically closed conception of reason.
If we define modernity in terms of the disappearance of traditionally established authorities, we are on more stable empirical ground than if we talk about any fundamental rupture with traditional culture. Yet the interaction of institutions and lifeworlds, in all of its ambiguity, constitutes an integral dimension in the problematic of modern violence. At the level of everyday life the dilemma of modern power is matter of protection, which in turn refers to a condition of vulnerability that is at once universal and appallingly unequally divided. Growth and dynamism have their counterpart in violence and deprivation: we see this from the seventeenth century Enclosure Movements to the nineteenth century climax in the Industrial Revolution, in the massive uprooting of peoples and creation of dependent populations in Great Britain.

Centralizing European states, seeking to survive interstate military competition and resist the disintegrative impact of new market forces, violently dominated and exploited their human populations for purposes of ‘development’ without any notion of rights for the vast majority: the conditions for the violent mass self defense of the French Revolution. Amartya Sen therefore sees the role of democracy as “protective,” related to the “preventable nature of some deprivations, and to our understanding of what can be done about them.” Sen therefore argues that democracy is not “mechanical” or “automatic” as a working system, but presents an “opportunity” through “democratic practice” and “open dialogue” to “create new values” and achieve social transformation “without coercion.” He points to the case of Kerala, one of India’s poorest states, where the flourishing of public discussion, debate and criticism contributed to the reduction of high rates of family fertility through generating a transformation in public values and priorities. From this perspective, we might define democracy as a modern political mode committed to human equality of political and social rights vis a vis the state (i.e. concerned with protecting the person from violence), and the institutionally non-violent resolution of inexorable differences in a civil society whose growth and survival is predicated on the first factor. This is in a way not far from what Emerson meant by “self reliance” or Thoreau discussed in “civil disobedience,” and the link between the American Transcendentalist view – born of the struggle against American slavery and imperialist war in Mexico – is not merely coincidence. An emerging intellectual constellation can be read through the lens of non-violence as the guiding value.

Violence is in this sense at the very centre of the practical problem of building modern democratic societies, but has been often inadequately recognized as such – in favour of other categories linked to concepts of epistemic truth (totality, origins, unity of consensus, inside/out) often tacitly or overtly justifying violence on the road to some ‘greater end’. Sen’s view of democracy both profoundly critiques and upholds modern traditions in political philosophy, in a way that reflects major historical learnings and places him in the intellectual company of John Dewey and the Frankfurt School thinkers including (with qualifications) Hannah Arendt and Antonio Gramsci. The vision linking these thinkers is also allied to the fundamental insight moving the twentieth century revolution in political practice introduced by Gandhi in the Indian National Independence movement.

In analyzing the problem of modern violence historically in terms of its discursive and institutional dimensions, we can see that much has been learned through the hard passage of historical time and new frameworks for thinking about democratic modernity do exist – but require systemic analysis to uncover their thematic and intellectual links. The common focal point linking these intellectual tendencies to the later non-violent mass movements launched by India’s successful democratic independence in 1947 is the importance attributed to civil society as the unceasing ground for experimental intelligence and dialogic socio-political plurality or the radical productive possibilities of the lifeworld. The genesis of this understanding was Nietzsche’s insight that the search for values and the creation of culture is a fundamental feature of the human condition. Although this continuous need for the re-examination of values was conceived by Nietzsche as the domain of the elite, the implications were extended by thinkers such as Weber, Dewey, the Frankfurt School and Amartya Sen to the workings of modern mass societies. This implies a radical rethinking of the nature of what power is, and the multiple ways in which it functions.

The formative post-Enlightenment debates, with their tacit concern over the problems of modern violence, bring into view three dialectically interdependent aspects: structures, everyday life and lifeworld. The broader and real world context for these debates is the political problem of power linked to macro-institutional changes in the modern world: the state-law complex, citizenship (rights), nations, capitalist economy and scientific revolution/technology (structures). Yet ultimately all politics everywhere can be resolved to people’s everyday bread and butter (i.e. economic) issues: work, ability to take care of family, education, health care, pension, personal security, shelter, political stability. In this sense democratic modernity is linked to a humanist ethic. These mundane realities of life and death are manipulated – exploiting what Johann Galtung called structural violence – by people seeking power (everyday life).

“Structural violence” indicates the dialectical interaction of the structural and the everyday, pointing to a third and inexorable phenomenological dimension in the contested representation of the lifeworld. The lifeworld is the oldest problem in the Enlightenment: it is found in the Vico-Descartes debate in which Vico denied that the sources of certainty and knowledge are found in ‘clear and distinct ideas’ (i.e. pure geometry omitting history and ordinary experience), but rather in the variegated complex of our multiple activities, practices, embodidness and imagination. While Descartes rejected history as a mass of errors, Vico emphasised history as the world of the humanly made and bearer of values. For a long time the lifeworld was swallowed in the aggressive dialectic between Enlightenment historicism and Romanticist iconoclasm/defence of the fragment. These debates were at the origin of the phenomenological concern, originally articulated by Schopenhauer, the body, and the violence done to it in everyday life in the name of competing modern ideological claims to the future.

2. The problem of modern violence as articulated in the dual threads of the European Enlightenment and the Romantic reaction

The conceptual and discursive underpinnings of modern violence have been frequently linked to a dialectics of the inside/outside, and these require historical analysis for an understanding of how discourse has given explicit practical justification to violence or tacitly led to it – even while seeking non-violent ends. We might identify three thematic categories:

1. the self and other;
2. civil society – open or closed?
3. Culture – between tradition and modernity.

These thematic points are addressed in the major debates defining the post-Kantian/Hegelian critical period of intellectual modernity: dialectical tensions between the natural and the social sciences; structure and agency; scientific-technological change and the lifeworld; objectivity, the unconscious and false consciousness; reason and meaning; means and ends; totality and origins; identity and the other (notably in Orientalism).

What should be kept in mind is that the Kant-Hegel theoretical construction was itself a reckoning with a seminal modern experience that was both emancipating and tragically violent, in the Industrial-French Revolutions and their nineteenth century aftermath in the repressive Concert of Europe culminating in the 1848 Revolutions. The context for these European revolutions was the utter absence of political rights/legal recourse for peasant/proletariat majorities in modernizing societies, which left the victims no apparent option but violence in a move of self protection; the domination and division of ethnic populations by foreign empires; and a military and intellectual class still steeped in the French Revolutionary discourse of the rights of man. The conflicting philosophical views surrounding these events – largely informed by the means/ends debate flowing from Kant and Hegel – have had a concrete impact upon experiments in democratic practice in the modern world. They are implicated in differing conceptions of secularism (i.e. Comte’s influence on Ataturk), and demonstrate the discursive underpinnings of practices of modern political violence (in the revolutionary communist experiments from China to Cuba and the national development paradigm that consumed so many twentieth century lives). Three – sometimes overlapping and sometimes distinct – predominant experiences of modern violence were articulated out of the Enlightenment-Romanticism debates: violence inflicted upon the individual by the state (secular Enlightenment in the Voltaire tradition), violence inflicted upon local cultures by a universal rationalizing discourse/practice (Romanticism in the Hamann-Herder tradition), and a new conception of exploitation as the use of men by other men in radically asymmetrical power relations for ‘alien’ purposes (initially Kant but articulated most damningly as a material problem of injustice by Marx).

The social context for the Kant-Hegel theoretical construction was the 1780’s-90’s crisis of Enlightenment in Germany, seeing the emergence of historicism, nihilism, anti-foundationalism and the theory/practice debate triggered by the uncontrollably violent experience of the French Revolution. It may seem that Kant, and the critical intellectual revolution he initiated, is remote from the problem of violence. But certain elements in his complex legacy – which shaped central debates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – facilitated the political imagining of non-violent and dialogic modes of conflict resolution, while others hardened into new dogmas justifying political violence. Generally speaking, we can say that Kantian thought – despite its failings – represents a force for a dialogic politics of non-violence. There are three major Kantian contributions: constructivism, structuralism and secularism. These contain two important and conflicting tendencies with respect to the problem of modern violence that Kant himself never successfully resolved or even recognized, between openness and totality. The tendency to totality – especially in Kant’s historical thought – was absorbed into Hegelian historicism, and later given fresh regenerations in Comtean and Marxist historicisms (via Vico’s legacy) that defined the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the age of ‘systems’ and ‘total historical passages’ with its almost eschatological color.

Firstly, we see Kant’s ‘constructivism’ in the break with the eighteenth century notion of a total identity between reason and nature. Following the Lisbon earthquake, he rejected the eighteenth century view of nature as a benevolent source of values. ‘Critical philosophy’ replaces ‘first principles’ as the means to regulative ideals, approachable but never to be attained. This insight, compounded significantly by the experience of the French Revolution, shattered the confident Enlightenment belief in modern objective knowledge leading to a final and fixed universal pattern resolving social conflict through natural knowledge. Thus ended the dream of a Utopia where two right views, whether in aesthetics or politics, cannot contradict one another, making it a matter of putting the right pieces together in a vision where freedom is a totality. Thus, the initial Enlightenment strategy for overcoming violence as embodied in Voltaire and Condorcet saw its demise against the complexities of practice – that is, the French Revolutionary war against the past – which culminated in the Napoleonic dictatorship/Wars and destroyed the hierarchies of old Europe forever.

Kant, against the totalizing schemes of such Leibniz-inspired Rationalism, affirmed the intellectually modest notion of the imperfection of human knowledge. Reason, Kantian dualism suggested, also has a cultural history: it is constructed within a temporal context. Instead of discovering self certifying foundations, as in the Cartesian tradition, the function of reason is to create practical principles/negative instructions suitable for conditions of open-ended public interaction and communication (i.e. universal autonomy). He thereby implied that values are created rather than discovered, and that freedom is a plural rather than unitary phenomenon (i.e. there are conflicting freedoms requiring continuous negotiation). Kant’s secularism is expressed in his ‘structuralism’ or so-called Copernican Revolution: where previously the natural object was ‘given’ as eternal and true to the passive senses upon the guarantee of Providence (Descartes), Kant broke this religious dependence in favor of ‘universal’ structures of the mind. Both of these aspects of the ‘negative critique’ opened up new democratic conceptual possibilities. Change is conceived as a gradual process occurring in people’s minds, with intersubjectivity guaranteed through the institutional separation of powers in the Locke/Montesquieu legalist tradition. This presupposes the permanence of differing and varied points of view.

The weakness, however, is in the tendency to totalization in the Kantian view of history: it is linked directly to the ontologization of colonial violence. His obsession with reconciling free will and the determinate physical laws of nature produced a dichotomy between empirical and a priori, the contingent and the necessary, the accident and the pure structure. This transcendental necessity, linked to an ethical Platonism, was to impose its laws from outside as a totality upon ordinary experience, and transformed world history into a determined theodicy dividing the rational future from the irrational past. This second tendency counteracted the creative and pluralist potential for learning opened up in the first tendency, through the positing of a Transcendent Subject synthesizing the diversity of lifeworlds as foreign matter from a higher outside perspective. It is also in this context that Kant ontologized violence as the work of Nature’s design in the move to civilized nations, a concept reused by Hegel in justifying the atrocities committed by European colonialism in Africa.

The 1780’s-90’s German crisis of Enlightenment triggered a coterminous Romantic movement, the third moment in the eighteenth century Industrial and French Revolutions, articulated by thinkers such as Hamann and Herder. They argued that Enlightenment universalism abstracts from context, and that its values are only apparently universal and eternal. Such universals, they argued, conceal amnesia about origins in specific historical conditions and are hence ethnocentric. Language is linked to a specific community, history, beliefs and values, and can never be raised to a level of universal abstraction. Kant’s notion of the origin of universal ethics of pure reason was rejected, as proved by the failure of the French Revolution to reconstruct society entirely from the bottom up according to purely rational foundations. Seeing violence against local cultures in Enlightenment universalism, Herder expressed a denial of unity on the basis of pure temporality in which values growing from differing cultural contexts are entirely incompatible. He suggested that the nation is a complete figure of sovereignty prior to historical development, entailing in essentialist fashion that all change is prefigured in the origin. As an ontological stance, it rejects the polar opposite of the eighteenth century jigsaw puzzle conception of universal knowledge in favor of localized knowledges.

Hegel was obsessed with these historicist, nihilist and theory/practice debates – in trying to synthesize the German Enlightenment and currents of romanticism, he conceived a historicist system while refusing to accept the relativist consequences of historicism. Rejecting first principles in favor of metaphysical systemicity, he rejected Kantian non-foundationalism (i.e. the goal for infinite but unrealizable striving) in insisting that dialectical rationalism can justify our most important moral and religious beliefs. That is, he sought closure in the cultural and political crisis of modernity through a totalizing historical move to a “conflict free” society, a dialectical middle way between dichotomous rational atheism and blind faith. This revival of total reason as a substantive means to access ultimate reality (along the anti-humanist lines of Leibniz and Spinoza) presented an alternative to Kant’s more humanist hope of minimizing the threat of violence through institutionally guaranteed openness and the negative stricture of the ‘categorical imperative.’ At bottom we have opposed views of self and the other. For Kant, the other remains the other, while for Hegel identity is absolute and the other is absorbed (yet, having said this, Kant had little appreciation for the other if he was not white and European). We see opposed views of the role of the state: for Kant, the legal function of the state is to maintain the open and dialogic character of civil society, while for Hegel the state supersedes the contradictions of civil society through a higher form of Reason. Concerning the category of culture between modernity and tradition, we see the same logic of dialectical supersession that applies to civil society on the road to the conflict free society. For Kant, the negative logic of the Categorical Imperative should permit the participation of all cultural values and meanings provided that they respect the limits of the Golden Rule; yet, because the a priori is a uniform logic grounded in the head rather than multiple democratic practices grounded in the world, it tends not to see the emancipatory potential in already existing social forms.

3. Non-violence

It is clear that within the Enlightenment-Romanticism traditions the problem of violence is more implicit than explicit – rather as all of the world religions discuss the power of non-violence in some of their aspects while often affirming violence in separate currents within the same historical tradition. For example, Saint Augustine’s Christian concept of the Just War – recycled to this day by statesmen justifying their aggression – sits uncomfortably with the historical precedent set by Christians as the world’s first passive resisters under Marcus Aurelius. Non-violence as an explicit practical philosophy has been voiced on the margins from the very beginning of the historical trajectory described here – for example, the Diggers in the English Civil War identified the contradiction in war as a road to freedom just as Cromwell justified violence in terms of the signs of Providence.

But it was only in the twentieth century that non-violence became the self conscious center of mass social movements in the precedent first established by Gandhi in the Indian national independence movement and later employed by Martin Luther King in the American Civil Rights Movement. This self conscious philosophical and practical line later re-emerged in the Velvet Revolutions of Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia) and freedom struggles from South Africa to Myanmar, before its more recent appearance in the mass protests that toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. It is possible to link these political experiences of non-violence to those intellectual tendencies that took shape in the nineteenth century and blossomed in the early part of the twentieth century – in certain neo-Kantian tendencies in Europe including Dilthey but expressed most forcefully in the anti-positivist sociology of Max Weber and later the Frankfurt School conceived broadly to include Hannah Arendt and Antonio Gramsci. In the American context, the Pragmatist writings of John Dewey laid the philosophical groundwork linking democratic political life to an ideal of conceptual pluralism. This intellectual tendency has found subtle and powerful expression in the philosophical worldview of Amartya Sen. As previously noted, it is focused on the unrealized power of civil society to transform collective values, meanings and practices in a struggle against domination grounded in either historical tradition or the violence of the modern state. The philosophical stakes seem to be: there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ modernity, itself a totalizing idea of rupture with the past based on a conceptual dichotomy, and entailing an authoritarian practice of power. Modernity, rather, must be embedded within a context specific and dialogic framework if it is to realize its democratic and participatory potential, in the spirit of egalitarian Enlightenment and humanist values. We see, in sum, attention to the dichotomous Enlightenment and Romantic concerns on the basis of historical learnings which teach that ‘absolute identity’ (essence) in either reason or culture amounts to violence in political practice.

These intellectual tendencies emerged in considerable part in response to the failings of the political revolutions of 1848 and 1870. While the 1848 revolutions saw the victory of political reaction and the revocation of the constitutions fought for and obtained during the victorious initial period, as a consequence of these experiences a deep change took place in the lives of the European populations. This change crystallized ideas and projected the pattern of things to come in European democratic politics. The experience showed the temporal character of democratic politics and struggle, such that the long range impact was felt in multiple events over the next fifty years. Meanwhile, the traumas of the Franco-Prussian War and the two World Wars that followed in its aftermath confirmed the horror of violence linked to asymmetrical power interests. The globally profound significance of the 1917 Russian Revolution, firstly as the euphoric flash of hope expressed by Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness, subsequently revealed the tragic limits of a lightening fast seizure of state power and dictatorship based on a purported doctrine of historical scientific certainty. Finally, the complex experiences of decolonization movements around the world, from Spanish America to the traditional land empires (i.e. Ottoman) and the Western colonial empires, introduced a complex of new organizational methods and conceptual mappings incorporating new issues of geography, religion and culture. If the late eighteenth century Enlightenment had seen European intellectual expansion beyond the Greco-Latin heritage of the Renaissance to a universe of different cultures via the political violence and imaginative domination of colonialism/Orientalism, now the order of power shifted so that Indian philosophy and politics came to transfigure the United states via the Gandhi-Martin Luther King link.

The critique of violence is linked to a critique of totality, i.e. ‘pure’ modernity. In his theory of deliberative democracy, Dewey asserted that complete democracy entails not merely voting rights but also the creation of a fully formed public dialogical space grounded in effective communication and participation among citizens, experts, and politicians through multiple institutional formations (i.e. a multi-centered agency). Dewey’s deliberative democracy is comparable to Sen’s concept of a ‘capability’ based understanding of development, which embraces a “many-sided approach” over a “single overarching process” (totality). Dewey understood this process as concerning conditions for “cooperation between values and conduct,” or the formation of values, which he called “the deepest problem in modern life.” Indeed, both are concerned with the plurality of lifeworlds as a site of potential democratization rather than either an ‘obstacle’ to ‘true’ modernity or an ‘essence’ embodying the ‘purity’ of the cultural ‘soul.’ Against any totalizing notion of “complete priority,” Sen argues for a “comparative” perspective based on “human diversity” and “differing relational perspectives,” “personal heterogeneities” and “environmental diversities.” His primary emphasis is upon “diversity” linked to “doing” and “being” “where a person may value various things” within the context of “different lifestyles.” Democracy provides the “conditions where people have the real opportunities of judging the kinds of lives they want to lead,” and correspondingly the “capacity to participate creatively in the emergence of new values.”

These visions introduce a new conception of power: we are no longer in the Kant-Hegel universe where a priori structures or absolute spirit contain the blueprint for a new tomorrow from the ‘outside’. Our values and institutions immanently and critically inform the collective struggle toward change into a non-violent democratic society. Dewey writes that “reason is not in the head,” but in context-specific “social institutions, established political customs (that) effect and perpetuate modes of reaction and perception.” Democratic practice is in the world encompassing the “distance between being and knowing,” where there are no ‘outside’ guarantees. The “reflective” framework of thought and action “terminates its own first and experimental forms in securing an organization which in turn evokes new patterns of reflective thinking” – it is grounded in many-sided method of technique, relations, change and adaptation, practice and action, where creative abilities and critical stance construct experience including thoughts, feelings and social relations. Hence, both Dewey and Sen identify the importance of the creative element, rather than the fixed outside a priori – and it follows that their thought is immanent, beyond the inside/out framework of dominant modern political theory, making the questions of origins and totality irrelevant. Dewey, indeed, argues that the “totality” of the universe is an imaginary construct. Origins are neither sublime, as Kant or Hegel urged, not simply “blood,” as Nietzsche mocked, and not a cultural essence as argued by Herder – origins are the multi-centered present in its dialectical relation to both the past and future as ideas, values, practices and institutions.

It follows that the view of the ‘other’ is comparatively open: there is no ‘enemy’ to modernity in tradition, or visa versa. Civil society, along the same lines, should remain open. These three points express the central idea behind the Gandhian revolution in political practice.

Now, if we compare this intellectual tendency to Gandhian thought and practice, we immediately notice strong linkages: the basis for Gandhian non-violence as technique of mass struggle and conflict resolution is the “fallibility of human beings.” Gandhi was certainly a humanist, who considered “the supreme consideration to be man.” He consistently placed human values of compassion before the religious injunctions of any discursive religious universe, and considered all religious books to be evolving upon a constant hermeneutical basis. In the absence of absolute knowledge, he argued, no one may justifiably impose their view on others through violence. It follows that Gandhi placed central emphasis upon freedom of conscience, and the rule of law to protect rather than subvert it. Life, Gandhi maintained, is “endless series of experiments:” and hence the only legitimate mode of negotiating political and social differences is dialogic. He considered “disagreement” as fundamental to the human condition. Satyagraha itself was understood by him as a form of dialogue, intended to persuade. In Gandhi’s view there was no ‘outside’: he often that the murderer is not out there, but within each of us. The real battle against violence, fascism, and so on, is inside of us. It follows that there was, for him, no enemy.

This was Gandhi’s “politics of reconciliation.” He used it in trying to ease Hindu-Muslim tensions, fighting caste untouchability, and leading the Independence Movement to expel the British Empire. Gandhi always argued that the ‘real definition’ of any term is decided by action or practice, and that this definition must remain open. He insisted upon the illegitimacy of any fixed definition of the nation, or Hinduism, or the West, or God, and so forth. In many notable ways, Prime Minister Nehru employed the same philosophy in India’s complex multi-lingual and multi-religious federal democracy after independence, and this explains how India became one of the longest lasting democracies among post-colonial countries. If we look at the Indian National Movement, we see a self conscious process of spreading a consciousness of democratic values and ideas on the ground among the mass of the Indian population. This spanned over decades, involving countless actors and manifestations of civil society under the political limits of the Raj, and this prepared the Indian population to participate in the post-independence political system through its numerous trials.

Finally, Gandhi also argued that we are not required to reach agreement upon questions concerning the ‘other side’ of metaphysics. He urged that we allow these to remain multiple and contradictory. This is similar to what Adorno meant when he argued that “pure identity is death.” There is no need for a pure identity, and the political creation of one inevitably involves a campaign of violence. Adorno, under the impact of the Second World War and Hitler’s rule, advanced a radical critique of totality. That is why he proposed a “negative dialectics” that always remains open and rejected the concept of history as a longitudinal totality. No future utopia, he argued, can redeem the sufferings of the past: intimating the means-ends linkage emphasised so strongly by Gandhian non-violence. He rejected the identical subject-object of history (advanced by Lukacs) because of the violence it implied to the other. The ‘other’, for Adorno, remained irreducible. In the same vein he rejected Romanticism, for it posits an absolutization of the collective subject – an inherent tyranny over those who are different. This was the ground for his confrontation with Heidegger and existentialism. The aesthetization of politics implies totalitarianism, a closed world. Adorno’s view of civil society, however, remained comparatively pessimistic. He was convinced, within the Marxist schema, that the revolutionary moment had been missed. He saw, like Marcuse, modern society as creating the brain deadened “one-dimensional man.” Here Adorno’s view was excessively pessimistic. Today, all over the world, we see many revolutions happening. It is urgent that social theory catch up with them, and recognize the critical role of non-violence as a force of change in the human condition.

2 Comments

  • At 2011.04.12 11:00, LiveThank.com said:

    Global Peace Movement and Relevance of Gandhian View…

    Tuesday, 12 April 2011, 2:33 pmPress Release: Dr. Ravindra KumarGlobal Peace Movement and Relevance of GandhianView“Mahatma Gandhi embodiedin his life certain universal principles that are inherentin the moral structure of the universe, and these pri…..

    • At 2011.04.22 23:13, momochi said:

      Nice site, nice and easy on the eyes and great content too.

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