Monday, 6 December, 2021

The Downsides Of A Mass Society

Dev Raj Dahal

Nepal society is, of late, witnessing rise of a new social order that is defined as a mass society. Its traits are individualism, family atomisation, rising divorce rate, one parent, egalitarian pretention that avers genus, lures to uniformity of tastes, styles, behaviour and one-sided caricature of external fads, fashion and faith. This mass society marks the decline of the classical “public” with an affinity to traditional mores and institutions and rise of a virtual elite web alienated from native lands and citizens. It is disabling the public’s feeling of solidarity. The political parties, civil society, business, educational institutions and mass media have developed the cultural apparatuses of a mass society lacking both organic connection with citizens and love of a community. They are frayed along partisan, commercial, infotainment and geopolitical lines and estranged from each other’s potential’s synergy vital for rebuilding Nepal.

Ruin of autonomy
Modernisation and urbanisation are leading to what Arthur Asa Berger calls a “mass society characterised by the development of classes and social differentiation, by anomie (and confusion about mores and proper ways of behaving), by increasing conflict and by lack of communication among members of society.” This mass is prone to political agitation which is not helpful to the stability of democratic values and constitution as it favours strong leaders and weak institutions. It upturns daily patterns of life, ruins the autonomy of public sphere, cripples private ethics and homogenises the character and actions of leaders. The bigger partisanisation of Nepali society, in the midst of scarcity, has impelled the overdrive of population spurring normlessness and dysfunctions of governance. Such a society marks a shift from the social and economic to legalistic ones and loss of public morality in politics.
To Aidan Rankin “Mass culture is secular and ahistorical, enshrines material possessions rather than human values and, worst of all, it generates a false assurance that tomorrow the world will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneously, inexhaustible power to increase.” The centrality of mass includes impersonal ties of atomised individuals, uniformity, lack of rule of law and emptiness of leaders. Massification of Nepali politics has led to the crumbling of traditional tissues of its society -- family values, religion, communal life and collectivity that produced its culture. Nepalis now feel a terrible sense of seclusion from their old roots without gluing the idea of citizenship, the locus of a new political community - the state.
The onset of democracy has entrenched citizens’ rights to high public offices, political expression and associational culture. But Nepali leaders have failed to meet the challenges of participatory change demonstrating their incapacity to act with political maturity, a trait essential to governance because of their long socialisation in opposition-oriented culture. Nepali political parties are only patched up by influential leaders, not ideologies, visions and institutional ethos. As they lack public interest orientations, citizens’ trust in them is waning. So does the sense of citizens’ civic confidence in determining public policy and influencing decisions through lawful means. Many survey researches have revealed that Nepalis often find politics too complex and their leaders have not honed their ability to control their conditions of life.
The dreary issues of pandemic, poverty, joblessness, migration, illiteracy, etc. which grip public discourses are, therefore, less momentous and less salient. Two critical responses for this would be to make civic education compulsory for leaders and citizens for the future making them capable of fulfilling the duties and bolstering the idea of the state to protect citizens’ rights to participate in public affairs beyond clannish conformity. The growing shift from material to symbolic economy caused the demise of cottage and small scale industries, terminal decline of agriculture, mass joblessness, a trend towards the casualisation of work, part time job, low pay without contract, partisanisation of workers, mass migration of youth abroad, etc. It has visibly clutched the political will for the nation’s social transformation.
The upswell of mass movements, in the form of single cause, such as ecology, consumer, trade union, gender, Dalit, ethnicity, indigenous nationalities and youth hit the political life of ordinary Nepalis as their struggle for less tiered society has fragmentary effects. Single-issue movements are political only to the extent of excluding other vital public good and far less defensive of the rights of unorganised citizens. The virtue of citizens defines their civilised way of living in accordance with standard rules of society. The rationality of political sphere is, therefore, expressed more in the dynamics of maximising power than mustering the allegiance of citizens and discovering policy coherence amid irreducible personal differences of leaders.
Contrary to the flow of economic, technological and informational stuffs which are attuning society as diverse as possible, one palpable character of Nepali political parties is that they have a strong propensity to stratify the support base, massify the citizens and reduce them into an unthinking crowd impassioned to cry for jindabad and murdabad in public places thus drowning out the voice of reason. In the celebration of ignorance, top Nepali leaders insulate themselves from the public needs, then, impose their objectives on them and turn them into an object of manipulation. As a result, little sense of political ideology or long-term attachment of citizens to parties exists.
There are little political agreements between factions, they seem to reflect personality conflicts more than party structure, policy or ideology fuelling only a clatter of democracy. In the long run, unfulfilled promises and hyperbolic jargons ignite fury of fluid mass that punishes the civility of citizens. None of the party leaders so far possess an ideal mix of democratic principles, political instincts and management capability required for the soft landing of this nation. In rural areas, spirits of politics look either sedative, apathetic or radical but in urban areas doubt is gnawing away whether the leaders can hold nation’s “unity in diversity” more peaceable.
The demise of the carapace of feudalism, jamindari system, led to the egalitarian land reforms and the penetration of state and later non-state and foreign institutions into society. Yet, political feudalism continues to sustain the glitter of cultural traits and its conceited materialism in ahistorical way. The inter-class, caste and gender relations ideally sustain vertical dependence of Nepalis on patchy distribution of resources. In urban areas, modernisation has led to the breakdown of traditional practices of patron-client as past is viewed as an enemy of progress. This marks the rise of money economy, shift of caste into class, personalistic to impersonal contractual ties and rise of rivalry among political groups for the sharing of spoils. The breakup of jamindari system and patchy integration of the state’s centre and periphery have added social alienation of elites from their rural roots causing a decline in old public morality.
Today’s binary education hardly socialises Nepalis to assume social duty serving an engine of social reforms. Rather, it awfully alienates elites from their heritage, losing local dialect and evolving a typically upper class accent in public relations. It has created a situation where the rural Nepalis are estranged from their own products, find diminishing returns of their social investment and hard to retain them for the overall progress of society. Disaffection divests professional elite of their social and political responsibility. The persons of peasant origin, for example, upon proselytising into educated elite generally cease to associate with the place of origin. Intellectual, business and political mobility, in this sense, means uprooting from one’s own nature, culture and society in which they have grown up and fading the base of representative politics. This is why most of rural areas of Nepal are short of critical mass of intellectuals of their own capable of driving progress. This disconnect has drained the social capital on which freedom, order and justice of democracy rests.
How can the lumpen classes revitalise Nepalis intrinsic potential for progress when they do not know what it means other than upholding the downsides of mass society? It is no longer news that many public schools, colleges, hospitals, archives and libraries are in physical danger and that many gurukuls (learning centres of traditional knowledge), temples, public spouts, pati pauwas (resting places), monasteries, gompa, and museums are suffering from an unjust neglect. The gostis of the Lichchhavi state which continues to exist now as guthis in Kathmandu, Rodhi among Gurung, Tharu Samaj, Mithila Samaj and so many other societies will fail to stir collective awareness of community and awaken the interest of citizens in public life if this neglect persists and they stay as lifeless spectator.
Many rural feudal classes devoid of political links find themselves slipping down the class ladder. The psychological conditions of those declining in class ladder have been vividly portrayed by writer Bhawani Bhikshu in his story “The Coat of Maujung Babusaheb.” The story narrates how political and economic change threw once noble families in economic crisis affecting their psychological condition of adjustment with new realities. Yet, their disdain for ordinary citizens continued. The crisis of rural feudalism has given way to urban aristocracy who along with new comprador class is exceedingly materialised and monetised holding no dissimilar attitude. As a result, rural feudal with the loss of their control on lands and influence over peasants are migrating to cities to acquire elite jobs.

Mass misery
The current core-biased model of economic development bents on extracting rural surplus (physical and human), exploiting and colonising the rural life-world of ordinary Nepalis that also imprisons their children in material and intellectual poverty and thus orienting the society to mass misery finding fight as a survival strategy. The neo-liberal revolt of elites posits an assault on more than a century of social reform, a reform that built a social contract between those who exercise and those who submit to power and authority. The downsizing of the state continues to erode the base of middle class which thrived on the state for health, education, employment, entitlements and other benefits. Their base became narrower owing to the negative politicisation of the mass thus transplanting the patron-client structure into party politics. The renewal of the public -- the pivot of society -- is essential to glue Nepalis with the state. It is a safety-valve to keep democracy safe from the downsides of its politics veering to a mass society.

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