Aam Aadmi or the Tyranny of the Average Man

Pratyush Chandra

On the eve of India’s Republic Day, President Pranab Mukherjee made some strong statements about the political scenario prevailing in the country. He talked about democracy as “a sacred trust” for those in power and those who violate it as “committing sacrilege against the nation”; about “democratic institutions being weakened by complacency and incompetence”; about corruption “as a cancer that erodes democracy, and weakens the foundations of our state”. He also talked about “hypocrisy in public life”, about making “false promises”, warning against taking elections as “the licence to flirt with illusions”, government as “a charity shop”, etc. But the most striking aspect of the speech was of course the recognition of street anger, of hearing “an anthem of despair from the street”, of Indians being “enraged”, of “rage”, which “has one legitimate target: those in power”, of “the aspirational young Indian”, who “will not forgive a betrayal of her future.” (Mukherjee 2014)

The speech recognises “the trust deficit between them [those in office] and the people.” It hints at the crisis of legitimation – the crisis of reproducing the liberal state, and the need to rebuild the trust. It also reflects a conservative institutional anxiety towards the populist attempts to overcome this crisis. When the speech attacks “populist anarchy”, the emphasis is on rage turning to proper anarchy because of the erratic nature of populist politics that derives from attempts to synchronise with the tenor of popular apathy and rage, and harness it in the service of the state. Populism that emerges as a resolution to the crisis might in fact deepen it further by “flirting with illusions,” thus augmenting expectations and despair. Therefore, the President stresses on the sacredness of this trust – on identity between the people and the democratic state, and in the process of this identification bringing sanity to the streets, sanitising them of any difference. People can change governments, but they are one with the state. Of course, for any eventuality, the security and armed forces are always ready – “they can crush an enemy within; with as much felicity as they guard our frontiers. Mavericks who question the integrity of our armed services are irresponsible and should find no place in public life”.

I

Much debate around the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is mainly about the personal acts of leaders and activists, how much they are fulfilling their promises and are true to liberal (left or right) political ideals (norms and ideologies), how much they themselves are embodiments of public values that they seek to institutionalise. You can see left-liberals swinging with the erratic moves of the AAP’s street gymnastics. They are frequently outraged by the AAP’s politically ‘incorrect’ stances that are organic to the common sense of the “common man”. More serious voices too are concerned about the AAP’s discursive and behavioural makeup, which they comprehend through generalisations that were perhaps effective in characterising historical forms of political behaviours. They indulge in analogical exercises which are generally useful, but at times, they can be arrogant, nauseating and sterile apologia for conservative wisdom, inaction and conformism, especially when they refuse to see the now-timeness of these hard times and the breach that characterises them – their non-homogeneity and non-emptiness pregnant with contradictions. Of course, the AAP can be, and perhaps is, as I try to demonstrate here, both a systematic and systemic attempt to transcend this breach, but it is also a symptom of this breach.

It is the recognition of the breach or crisis that is crucial to comprehend the present – not as “a mass of facts”, but something that constellates with the past to remake history as a trajectory that is filled with possibilities and actions, “jumps” and “leaps”, roadmines and explosions.

What is interesting about the AAP is not its promises and its exception-al way of profaning the sacred, which is in continuum with the federalising project of the “average bourgeois” – the rural, mercantile, local, petty and emergent bourgeoisie – that India has witnessed over the last three decades. We must remember we have gone through a whole series of crises marked by eruption of federal demands and have witnessed the resilience of the Indian state in overcoming them through accommodation and expansion. One such major crisis was inaugurated by massive educated unemployment in the late 1960s, an increased assertion of backward caste rural bourgeoisie and of the communally-charged petty bourgeoisie, which significantly transformed the political taxonomy in India based on identitarian conflicts and alliances. That was a crisis which Lohia socialism, JP’s “total revolution” and Naxal Maoism spiced up. It is not surprising if in the AAP we see anti-reservationists, firebrand Lohiaites and retired social democrats (tired of preaching sterile welfarist militancy) coming together in a post-ideological political formation.

In fact, it will not be too much to say that the project of promoting competitive federalism has succeeded with the AAP entering the last citadel of exclusionary centralism of the past. True to Delhi’s prime location, the incident that finally exploded the continuum was characterised by its inter-national composure – racism. The AAP chose to assert its claim or share in the coercive apparatus of the Indian state by abiding to the racist common sense of Delhi’s common man. Those who are outraged by the ‘exceptional’ nature of the incident are those who refuse to see that the exceptional is general and their politically correct spectacular gestures signify the need for new ideological-institutional fetishes that can cover up the blatancy of this generalisation.

II

So much about the continuity that enters into the making of the AAP phenomenon. Let us now talk about the break – which is not really about the AAP but about the conjunctural newness that shapes the AAP, or about what the AAP tells us about the context of its emergence. Let us begin by a few assertions that we think are very obvious.

The Aam Aadmi Party is an attempt to resolve the legitimation crisis that the Indian state and bureaucracy have been facing in recent years. It is an attempt to overcome the divide between the social and the political that the economic has generated in the neoliberal phase of capitalist development. It is an effort on the part of the Indian political system to bring back the citizenry to recommit itself to India’s state formation. It is an apparently paradoxical attempt to mobilise the simmering political apathy for the task of strengthening the state. Its multi-class nature, which is being celebrated by some commentators (as if there can be any mono-class formation in electoral democracy), in fact makes it another candidate for reassuring the state machinery of the much needed legitimation by neutralising conflictual interests. It is an attempt to bring out some positive common sense out of the non-sense and chaos of the streets. It demonstrates the will of the liberal Indian state to overcome its crisis yet again by recognising and normalising the “democratic excess”. What is posed as “anti-establishment” becomes the ground for strengthening the establishment – a new context in which the state must reproduce itself, its re-formation. In sum, the AAP is a truce – a disarming of the very street from which it claims its origin.

In so many assertions that I make above, there is an understanding of the underlying structure of contemporary reality, of which the AAP is a product. The legitimation crisis that we are talking about is essentially a crisis in the political reproduction of this structure, difficulties for the Indian state to deal with the socio-political impact of the volatility of capital relations that constitute this structure.

The minimisation of the state that neoliberalism demanded was definitely not about withering away of the state, it was not even about its non-intervention in economy, nor about its weakness. It was essentially about the autonomisation of credit money and finance from any socio-political influence, except that which facilitates its expansion. It was about expanding the liberal capitalist state’s capacity to guard against any “externality” in the economic passage, against self-temptations. It was still about depoliticising “the conduct of social relations as relations of liberty, freedom, equality and Bentham”. (Bonefeld 2010) It was always about strengthening “the separation that the state embodies” – “the state separates people, separates leaders from masses, separates the political from the economic, the public from the private”. (Holloway 2010)

Financialisation intensifies the flow of capital on which every economic activity is dependent in capitalism, transcending any plausibility to bind it in a discrete fraction of timespace. It connects lives and work to the precarities of open markets. Ever-intensifying mobility of finance capital has made ineffective the estatal management of money and prices, which had the potential of being influenced by the balance of social forces. It is the sub-alterity of the ‘social’ in this ‘economic’ process that alienates the former, constituting a legitimation crisis for the state especially during the down cycle of economies – a barrier in the process of the social reproduction of state as “a particular surface (or phenomenal) form of the capital relation”. (Holloway & Picciotto 1977) This crisis becomes crucial when it starts creating barriers in the resurgence of the economic – for capitalist accumulation – i.e., when the social starts attacking the divide between the economic and the political as a fetishism, when the social relations of production that finance sought to regulate are problematised and in the process the social itself starts becoming politicised. Ultimately, the insubordination of the social is a manifestation of the inability of capital to subsume living labour, when the latter starts asserting its own autonomy in some or other form.

The essential function of this strong state as neoliberals envisage is to manage the socio-political fallouts of neoliberalism. If people are not ready to give their consent to neoliberalisation, then they must be forced to submit. But this subservient role of the state and its shameless display has progressively weakened its support base in the social and has increased political apathy. Throughout the 1990s and in the 2000s there were numerous occasions when the states throughout the globe had to face unmanageable situations and were either forced to resort to violence or try hard to divert public attention from them by investing more in wasteful exercises. All this exploded in 2008. And Keynesians – left and liberals – were elated to find an opportune moment to call for bringing the state back in – not just as a backstage manager but as the administrator of the economy – managing the demand-and-supply, and setting the prices right. If only wishes had wings. Capitalism needed the welfare state and had it.

What we see today in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, a return of the state which was already there – it is a return of the state as itself – a state which is not just a guard of private players of neoliberalism, but a guardian that secures the basic values of capitalism, ready to reprimand those who foul, ready to listen to those who complain of foul play and to judge. It is (neo)liberal to its core, is committed to socialise the basic liberal values. It abstracts itself from identities to oversee their intermingling and competition, thus reducing them to mere abstract individualities.  It satisfies the “need for the constant political facilitation of free economy by means of a ‘market police’, which includes the embedding of the ‘psycho-moral forces’ of enterprise in society at large to maintain its entrepreneurial ‘vitality’ in the face of a socially and morally disintegrating market logic”. (Bonefeld 2013)

The traditional political formations, including those who claimed a grounding in the segments down the hierarchical ladder, were instrumentalised too much during the insurgent moments of neoliberalism. They are unable to preserve the “separation that the state embodies.” That has incapacitated them from dealing with the social impact of the global economic crisis. Diverse class interests start expressing themselves autonomously and (il-)legitimately swelling the streets, merging the diverse tunes into a cacophony. This cacophony, its incomprehensibility, is what constitutes the legitimation crisis for a state. Traditional political oppositions have failed in their function as interpreters of this outswelling. They are unable to reduce it to mere competition between abstract identities.

It is this cacophony and the inability of the existing political formations to subsume it that India’s President was alluding to in the speech that we referred to in the beginning. The so-called post-ideological formations like the AAP come in handy at this juncture. The a-politics of aam aadmi or common or average man is what can bring back order to the streets – the reduction of difference and conflicts to undifferentiated hordes of abstract individuals identified with the sovereign.

III

This idea has long been prevalent among political theorists that democracy “presupposes an identity between sovereign and people: sovereign people, popular sovereignty”. This identification is codified in the Indian Constitution too, and it is evident in President Mukherjee’s speech. Legislative changes have sufficed till recently in overcoming any breach or crisis that has cropped up in this identification. Articles 3, 340, numerous amendments to the Constitution and other legislative measures could overcome any breach in the said “identity” and reproduce it within the framework of the Indian state formation.

The twentieth century has reincarnated democracy as a state-form, rather than just a form of government as “in the democracy of the ancients”. In the definition of democracy as a state-form “the word ‘identity’ is useful…because it points to the complete identity of the homogeneous people, this people that exists within itself qua political unit without any further need for representation, precisely because it is self-representing”. (Schmitt, quoted in Tronti 2009) Italian Marxist Mario Tronti elaborates that this identity precludes majoritarianism – the power of the majority. In fact, any difference must be fought away, including between the majority and the minority. Therefore, the discourse of mainstreaming the latter, cutting them to the size of the one – un-ity. “There is in democracy an identitarian vocation hostile to the articulation of any difference whatever as well as to any order of difference”. (Tronti 2009)

Mainstreaming, averaging, neutralising – this is what democracy does. It creates the persona of the average, neutral, common man – Aam Aadmi. Power is de-sacralised, secularised and profaned. Common man is one with the state. Tronti takes this conceptualisation to an extreme, when he seems to argue that with the processes of globalisation there is a gradual extinction of the state in an institutional sense. However, it is hard to dispute when he says that the function of the state is recuperated within the social. This simply is to reassert the self-representative nature of the demos – its common-ality, “the massification of thoughts, feelings, tastes, behaviours expressed in that political power which is common sense”. Tronti (ibid.) explains himself further when he defines the common:

“The ‘common’ which is spoken of today is really that in-common which is already wholly taken over by this kind of self-dictatorship, this kind of tyranny over oneself which is the contemporary form of that brilliant modern idea: voluntary servitude.”

He aptly concludes giving us a key to disentangle the spirit of democratisation epitomised by forces like the AAP:

“The average bourgeois has won: this is the figure of democracy. Democracy is this: not the tyranny of the majority, but the tyranny of the average man. And this average man constitutes a mass within the Nietzschean category of the last man.”

In fact, almost a century back, a liberal American philosopher, John M Mecklin (1918) talked about the “tyranny, more powerful, more insidious perhaps than any other”, about hydra-headed, myriad-handed modern tyrant, about “the tyranny of the average man”, of this “dominant mediocrity”, a “mythical personage” which becomes real “because of the steam-roller effect of the unwritten law of democracy, namely, uniformity.” The average man “dominated by routine and tradition” is “like the golden calf of apostate Israel he is but the creation of our own hands and yet we worship him as our god.”

President Mukherjee (2014) called out to the common man against any fracture. “A fractured government, hostage to whimsical opportunists, is always an unhappy eventuality. In 2014, it could be catastrophic.” So the question is to build and manage consensus, not giving space to fracturing.

For Tronti, contemporary political systems are actually apolitical since they do not negotiate between antinomies or social contradictions, but seek to evade them. The (a)political choices are between two aggregates of consensus:

“[O]n the one side we have reactionary bourgeois drives, and on the other progressive bourgeois drives. And I say drives, that is, emotive reflexes, symbolic imaginaries, all moved and governed by great mass communication. Reactionary and progressive drives which nonetheless share this average bourgeois character. On the one hand compassionate conservatism, on the other political correctness. These are the two great blocs. This is the governmental alternative offered by apolitical democratic systems.” (Tronti 2009)

Where do the traditional political formations among workers, the traditional communist parties figure in this apolitical system of consensus? What do we make of the hillarious responses of the left to the AAP’s performance? Their bewilderment is a thousand and first symptom of their embeddedness in capitalist polity – all of them wanted to see themselves in the AAP’s place. Their anxiety to find affinity with the AAP in its successes or to trivialise it by chanting “same old same old” is a reflection of their sense of trepidation about their own future. Communist leaders are trying hard to convince their cadre and the media about their continued relevance.

On the other hand, the chartist left – from NGOs to fringe holier-than-thou militant reformist sects find their role as lobbyists quite self-gratifying with the emergence of the apolitics of aam aadmi – they can perhaps play on the anxieties of the electoral competitors – accept our demands or we will expose you before the aam aadmi. They are increasingly finding lobbyist techniques and blackmailing more satisfying than sharpening social antagonisms and contradictions. That increases their visibility, as it synchronises well with the sensationalist drives of “great mass communication”.

What Tronti expresses about the transformation of workers’parties in the West has always been true for the communist parties and groups in India – right from their genesis they have been trying hard to be parties of the whole people, and have worked well in the popular management of class conflicts and dissipating the “destructive antagonistic character” of working class politics.

IV

However, in our critique of the times we must satisfy the task bestowed upon us by Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. We must recognise the urgency to discern the ground and forms of politics that can change the world. Tronti (ibid.) in his analysis of mass bourgeois democracy finds a contradiction – janus bifrons – at its centre whose incomplete resolution is the persona of the average man, aam aadmi:

“within democracy, within its history, we find knotted together a practice of dominaton and a project of liberation – they always present themselves together, they are co-present. In some periods (periods of crisis, states of exception) these two dimensions are in conflict. In others (such as in the contemporary situation, which is a state of normality, or at least that is the way I read it) they are integrated.”

So, the task for Tronti is not just to untie the knot, but cut it apart permanently. The institutional left has always tried to untie it so that new institutions could be built and consolidated – thus retying the knot. The project of liberation has hitherto served to make the practice of domination more and more resilient. Against the average mass bourgeois common man, which is the ideal of bourgeois democratic normalcy (of national/ people’s/ new varieties), a critical praxis must be posed that deconstructs the contemporary state-form, its institutional and ideological apparatuses and exposes the underlying structure of social relations based on exploitation and domination, and how everyday conflicts shape them.

In a recent work, Tronti (2010) has once again posed the working class as the revolutionary political subject. He talks about liberating the revolutionary discourse of people from its constitutional, institutional appropriation, resuscitating “the authentic meaning of the political concept of the people: specifying and determining it with the social concept of labour. A people, not of the subjects of the crown, not of citizens, but of workers”. He further concludes,

“The working people as a general class is possible only today, in working conditions that are extended and parcellised, far-reaching and fragmented, territorialised and globalised – the Marxian meaning of labour, without qualifiers, from the exhaustion of the hands to the exhaustion of the concept, from the occupation you don’t love to the occupation you can’t find, an archipelago of islands that make up a continent.” (Ibid)

As Tronti (2009) stresses, it is only during crises and states of emergency that we find the breach in the democratic state-form and an opportunity to cut the knot that ties the practice of domination and the project of liberation together. But here Walter Benjamin’s eighth thesis on philosophy of history must be brought in to grasp the permanent revolutionary project of the working class. This thesis must be recognised as a strategisation of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. In fact, the various theses, despite their terse makeup, constitute a formidable attack on the social democratic interpretation of history as progression, that takes capitalist exploitation and fascism as “historical norms”. Benjamin (1940 [1969]) shows how this interpretation has led to conformism and “servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus”. Nothing corrupted the working class “so much as the notion that it was moving with the current”. That labour is “the source of all wealth and all culture” is an illusion that serves to resurrect the protestant ethic of work in secularised form.

Like Tronti, Benjamin too posits the revolutionary subjectivity of the working class against its reduction into an evolutionary agency among “man or men”, aam aadmi to redeem “future generations”. He accuses social democracy of making “the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice”. The working class is revolutionary as “the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.”

The specificity of the eighth thesis lies in exposing the limited significance of the legal-fictional conception of the “state of emergency” or exception in grasping the state in which the oppressed or the working class lives. The application of this conception is limited to understanding how apolitical systems utilise it to build up their emergency apparatuses to reproduce themselves. However, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Labour-capital relations that constitute the everydayness of capitalism are always an emergency situation with the self-annihilating mission of the working class posing a constant death threat to capital and capitalism. Going back to our discussion on “separations that the state embodies”, the so-called de-politicisation of the economic actually implies that the arena of everyday life is always under a state of emergency. To know this fact one should simply interact with a wage worker – employed or unemployed. Remember, panopticon was modelled on factory life. In the era of financialisation and global social factory, capitalism has acquired a “fractal panopticist” character: “The pantopticon of the global market is ‘fractal’, in that each level of social aggregation, each node or singularity, is ‘self-similar’ to others.” It is a global network of prison houses. (De Angelis 2007: 217)

The strategic contributions of Benjamin’s eighth thesis lie at two levels. First, it brings out the conception of history as class struggle (not just as its history), which can be understood only by looking beyond formal processes and progression. History is made in class praxes and antagonisms. Secondly, it stresses on the class strategy of realising “a real state of emergency” that will not allow capital to settle and any of its regime to become a “historical norm.”

V

Aam Aadmi is always there as the spirit behind liberal democracy – in the conjuncture of the capitalist state or sovereign and people, but it is only during an explicit breach in this identity that aam aadmi seeks embodiment. It is a formal state of emergency when street rage and cacophony start to threaten the abstraction of the liberal state, separations that it embodies. This formal emergency is a result of “the oppressed” emerging out of their subalterity. They are in the process of creating a real state of emergency by emerging as a class. Aam aadmi must ground itself to average all the voices in the streets and bring order – these voices must get equal representation, and be subsumed. Anarchy must be curbed. But this cannot be accomplished simply by promises or actions from above, but by seeking oneness with the street – by reintegrating people with the State, regrounding it in the social.  The President representing compassionate conservatism is legitimately anxious, and would prefer either the old guards directing this populism, or the new ones learning old tricks and language to ensure continuity. However, the task is to renew consensus behind the State – the depth of apathy and alienation must be matched by the height of populism.

But it is in this breach that we must seek radical possibilities. The compulsion of the State to reproduce itself in the social, in everydayness, desacralises its instruments, exposes its vulnerabilities. If we find traditional political formations and state institutions complaining about disrespect to the decorum of the officialdom and of “populist anarchism”, it is not populism that they fear, but anarchism on the ground with which populism seeks to connect. The fear is whether populism will consolidate itself and strengthen the basis of state formation or it will over-expose its egregious vulnerabilities. It is the latter that might make the whole edifice of the State fall like a pack of cards – expose the Naked King and his mythical subject, Aam Aadmi. Whether mohalla samitis (neighbourhood councils) will be a replication of the gram sabha, homogenising the neighbourhoods, reproducing and formalising the everyday exploitative social relations in state formation; or are they going to be a ground to generalise, locate and intensify class struggle: will we see a spur of rent strikes, food riots, factory occupations and squatting? Will direct democracy be reduced to the ritual of janata darbar, and eventually a junta darbar? Or will it be a call for a dual power tending towards the destruction of the liberal state? Well, the theoretician among aam aadmi leaders have made it clear: some of them can be socialists, but they are not silly.

References:

Benjamin (1940 [1969]) – Benjamin, W. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations, Knopf (1969).

Bonefeld 2010 – Bonefeld, W. “Free economy and the strong state: Some notes on the state”, Capital & Class 34(1), pp 15-24. (February 2010).

Bonefeld 2013 – Bonefeld, W. “Human economy and social policy: On ordo-liberalism and political authority”, History of the Human Sciences 26(2), pp 106-125 (April 2013).

De Angelis 2001 – De Angelis, M. The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Power, Pluto Press (2007).

Holloway 2010 – Holloway, J. “Foreword to the German Edition”, in Raul Zibechi, Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces, AK Press (2010).

Holloway & Picciotto 1977 – Holloway, J & S. Picciotto, “Capital, Crisis and the State”, Capital & Class 1(2), pp 76-101 (Summer 1977).

Mecklin 1918 – Mecklin, J.M. “The Tyranny of the Average Man”, International Journal of Ethics, 28(2), pp 240-52 (January 1918).

Mukherjee 2014 – Address by the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee on the eve of Republic Day of India 2014, New Delhi (January 25, 2014).

Tronti 2009 – Tronti, M. “Towards a Critique of Political Democracy”, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 5(1) (2009).

Tronti 2010 – Tronti, M. “We have populism because there is no people”, Democrazia e Diritto (2010, no. 3-4) published in English in 2013.

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