Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Beyond The Culture Of Modernity

Dev Raj Dahal

THIS social world is governed by political leaders. But many forces and causal laws in space and time reconstitute order beyond human imagination and scientific discovery to grasp, control and steer in desirable direction. The scientific inventions have helped to address certain social, economic and political shift, awakened them to the need to secure ecological resilience and keep pace with the modern age, but not spot all intangibles of human society’s crisis complex. There are invisible elements floating free now like coronavirus with full-scale play without any sign of ending soon. It is marking a global shift in power and wealth beyond the dilemma of tradition and modernity. Poor Nepalis are facing anxiety over elite-driven project of modernity that conquered the nature and the weak through technological means, commercialised public goods and increased consumptive power of imported goods against productive deficit and devalued local knowledge and practices based on self-help.
Obviously, this virus has become an issue of scientific inquiry in search for remedy but also social, economic and political issues, a matter for global solidarity, beyond individual nation’s solitary struggle to control. The remedy of novel situation demands creative and enduring shift in the direction of adversarial politics, economy based on profits, hierarchic society based on domination and international relations governed by power politics to an edifice of justice, caring and reciprocity thus lifting human beings to higher plane of unity and solidarity. This enables to bind a web of ties to the rationality of multiple modernity, where citizens’ expectations from the state remains fulfilled and leaders strive for a bigger scale of social change fit for a new global order along Gesellschaft. The outreach of constitutionalism beyond the state is seen as a critique of tradition and liberation of citizens from pre-modern stage to globalisation. But the benefits of modernity have been consumed by globally mobilised elites, not the workers who are deprived of basic security and livelihood.
The spirit of modernity embedded in rationalism, science, individualism, rights, planning, development administration, institution building, education, communication and market steered by the state has not been able to fully abolish primordial differences of Nepalis to achieve full social emancipation from fatalism, political emancipation within the state by bridging elite-mass gap, and human emancipation in the frame of universal declaration of human rights revealing an irony of modernity. The guidance of state-centric social sciences to policy remains twisted for a lack of proper native preconditions. This is why transformation of the causes of national ills through proper values, knowledge, policies and institutions are stunted. Scientific learning and adoption of corresponding sentiment, feeling, emotion and judgment requires modern human construction that protects citizens from the blow of every calamity imperilling and exposing the fragile conditions of Nepalis’ lives.
Owing to Nepal’s strong cultural traditions, modernity exists with its social, economic, technological and political practices. But it is also incubating new form of interest-based associational solidarity. Nepal faces other challenges: social forms of geopolitics infusing deeper effects on national unity and stability, competition of politically disembodied forces beyond national sensibilities to cope crisis, influence of invisible hand in shaping internal political equation and ineffective application of rules to govern the interface of global system and its local clients such as NGOs, civil society, part of media, politics and business. These clients are considered public sphere vital to the realisation of freedom though they constantly undermine the sanity of tradition and institutions and governmentalise sovereignty. Modernity is justified by its good effects which outweighs the costs. Nepali leaders should refrain from acting in certain direction if the costs are too high to bear and imposes the burden on nibbling the nation in constitutional and de-traditionalised direction.
Unlike the West’s analytic tradition which deems human as self-defining and expressing subject of modernity, the Hindu-Buddhist Nepali society sees it in allusion to cosmic order based on emancipatory value of nirvana or moksha (liberation) earlier practiced in the continental Europe. The Vedic notion of aham asmi evolved divine, conscious self in the sphere of freedom, justice and equality, not Hobbesian dark human instinct to be socialised by the fear of Leviathan. Astavakra’s treatise on soul and Buddha’s self-light are not a bit of metaphysics only.
The discourses of Nepali sages in the public sphere, therefore, were devoid of domination of power and authority and linear rationality of disciplinary science and social science. They postulated certain premises: critique on the irrationality of knowledge based on blind faith and caricature and incapable of resolving problems, production and verification of knowledge, self-reflective praxis for everyday life and freedom from ignorance through wisdom and its transmission across generation in social life and statecraft.
Astavakra defined human maturity not in terms of age but profound knowledge, experience and wisdom. Maturity for him is a sign whereby leaders and citizens can take rational decision and action what Kant calls “without the direction of others.” Socrates, not Kant, practiced Kantian “dare to think” essential for the recognition of human dignity, freedom of human will, which humanises the tradition of enlightenment beyond the instrumental use of reason. The modern rationality based on technocratic, bureaucratic and economic impulse has only unleashed consumerist culture and dehumanised citizens justifying a gap in education, health, status and opportunities and vertical integration of society.
Current social movements of the oppressed and cause groups of Nepal are animus to it. Unlike the European enlightenment thinkers who imagined the world as a machine, the Hindu-Buddhist version of cosmic web of life revolves around karamic chakra cyclical life, like nature, and goes beyond Kantian formulation of human beings as ends in themselves, not means to instrumental value used in politics and economy in anti-Kantian way. Now it is creating unbridgeable chasm in Nepali society, fuelling the causes of manipulation and destructive of nature, culture and weak.
The central force of modernity is the state that subsumes all subsidiary identities, offer social contract, freedom of association, politico-bureaucratic order and its outreach in pre-existing social boundaries through security, law, service delivery and conflict resolution. The application of secular modernity in Nepal has reduced the traditional form of knowledge and authority without decisively breaking with the political culture of predecessors keeping political and intellectual aristocracy intact. Its instrumental rationality, however, decoupled science and humanity from spiritualism, feeling and emotion. The sanity of tradition is the soul of Nepali nation.
Citizens are suffering from the endless chains of multiple causes of anguish on national backwardness. The law of personal utility uses one person against another as a means of comfort thus weakening the Constitutional impulse of egalitarian effects of democracy and virtuous native traits of compassion, courage, solidarity and empathy affirming the life of agile existence. Nepal’s practice of neoliberal policy inverted politics from public purpose while cultic honouring of leaders through rituals cut their democratic decency. The antinomy between Nepali leaders’ promise and their show symbolises moral void, an anti-emancipatory stuff of modernity.
Nepali citizens’ abiding faith in transcendental values of dharma (virtuous deeds) and value-based education endure till now beyond the legal-rational norms. They, therefore, reconciled reason and tradition - the former for the rationalisation of public life and later for order, stability and national resilience. Nepal’s adoption of rights-based modernity since its caricature of the external world refused the values of feeling, sentiment and compassion upheld by citizens. The insidious acrimony of globalised Nepali workers unable to return home may open a scope for acerbic socialisation, mobilisation and collective action.
The endurance of constitutional tradition of politics and democracy in Nepal rests more on taking care of them, settling the bargaining at intra-party level than inter-party relations and restraining officials’ absurd haggling with the state without considering its institutional power to respond to citizens needs, rights and aspirations. So long as democracy in the inner life of Nepali parties remain flimsy it will carry on sadistic self-perpetuation of leaders with factional tension and crippling paternalism leaving the issue of leadership, organisation, policy, ideology and discipline in tatter. Political acculturation to modernity and participatory value of democracy requires front line role of critical mass of organic intellectuals upholding cognitive aspect of Nepali politics and civic culture.
Bulk of Nepalis is fretful with securing their urgent universal needs. They suffer from the illusion of innocent optimism about democracy, borrowed policy and partisan-minded leaders woven into the fabric of parochial political culture. The continuity of structural injustice deprives the use of rational ability of Nepalis to cultivate desirable virtues and skills crucial for relishing its tradition of enlightenment, release from inner poverty and generational chains of drudgery. Vast inequality of wealth and power in Nepali society subverts the prospect of modernity’s traits. So long as Nepali peasants and workers find no ample means to satisfy their needs they will continue to face intergenerational misery producing innately unstable social and economic system. The crisis of scarcity of public goods and their selective supply spur grievances and stoke the courage of evil elements.
Regenerating public philosophy, institutions and apt policies for production, exchange and distribution in a just manner can be a remedy. National political awareness, institution building and virtues of humility of leaders can thrill Nepalis’ potential for the transformation of society, economy and polity, address the problem of scarcity, poverty, jealousy and conflict and enable them to acquire social, economic and political emancipation couched in the logic of modernity. The power of labour, citizen and human rights and mindful utilisation of electoral choice can offer opportunity to humanise their condition through duties and reformist means. But instrumental wants of restless postmodern identity groups have to be optimised in a modern democratic path of cooperation as it can resolve the destabilisation effects of contradiction that paralyses their consciousness and sterilises national vision and collective action.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)