(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books, three volumes of poetry and a novel recently long-listed for the DSC Prize.)
Noam Chomsky is one of the great public intellectuals of our times. No wild demagogue but an MIT professor who has shaped world thought over the past half century and made key phrases such as "the manufacture of consent" and "the new mandarins" part of common political vocabulary, he yet espouses an 'anarchist' perspective. What does he mean by this?
As the fledging AAP takes office after its recent stunning electoral victory, I suggest it could have something vital to learn from Professor Chomsky's interpretation of anarchism. Even more crucially, all of us beleaguered citizens of India and denizens of Delhi, who have so blithely been invited to become Chief Ministers alongside Mr. Kejriwal, could also perhaps benefit from Chomsky's thoughts on why 'anarchy' might matter for democracies today. AAP, after all, is an avowedly anti-establishment party that finds itself voted in with an absolute majority. Therefore, a central question thrown up by its 'new politics' has to be: how can a spirit of robust dissent be nurtured by those in charge of a hierarchical, rule-bound and powerfully entrenched system of government?
The gloss on 'anarchism' that Noam Chomsky provides helps address this foundational question. As he sees it, a chief attraction of anarchist doctrine is that it fractures power. Its essence lies in multiplicity. In his scholarly introduction to Daniel Guerin's Anarchism: From Theory to Practice (1987), Chomsky maintains that there have been "many styles of thought and action that have been referred to as 'anarchist'". He also presents us with a wonderfully evocative description of anarchism: "A French writer, sympathetic to anarchism, wrote in the 1890s that 'anarchism has a broad back, like paper it endures anything.'"
It is this quality of 'endurance', the 'broad-back' of anarchism as a 'style of thought and action' that could offer, in my view, a common person's guide to understanding why 'anarchy' could be a useful concept in the evolution of democracy today. For, when a concept 'endures' across time and is capacious enough to embrace enormous multiplicity, it maybe should not be lightly tossed away once it has served a limited purpose. As Bhartrhari, the independent-minded Sanskrit grammarian, put it in another context enam nana rupam atmani sannivistam (roughly translated, the atman or singular self is settled deep within a multiform world) Thus, especially in a plural society such as ours, 'anarchism' cannot be dismissed simply as a synonym for idiosyncratic behaviour. Rather, it could be retained as a key conceptual item in democratic spaces, interestingly signifying both a dangerous volatility as well as what the Russian anarchist Bakunin called our inalienable "instinct for freedom".
Track the word 'anarchy' from its early Greek beginnings (an-arkhos, meaning 'without a ruler') and it is apparent that it embodies a deep psychological tension between our need as individuals to be free, and the necessity for force to be exercised by governments that curtail our individual freedoms where there is a disruption of 'law and order'. Anarchy is thus a 'swing-voter' word in mediating the social contract and is interesting for this reason. True, its connotations have mainly been negative; it has repeatedly been associated with chaos, with insurrections and with riots. Yet philosophers from Hobbes to Kant have paid the concept serious attention, while Proudhon attempted to constructively build anarchism into a political movement based on 'voluntarism' - a move that resonates with AAP's recent Delhi campaign.
Consider the following real-world Indian scenario from last week: a sudden flash-mob of AAP youth breaks out into an energetic 'Jai Ho' dance in Vikram Chandra's cool, well-appointed, technologically snazzy NDTV studio. Then Prashant Bhushan steps in, describing in measured tones the difficult problems of articulation and implementation that AAP will face in the next five years. The atmosphere in the studio sobers down. But how does one reconcile these two opposed faces of political action, these wholly divergent modes of self-representation? It is here that the notion of 'anarchic spaces' is useful.
Anarchic space is critical in a modern democracy because its hallmark is contestation. Veering unpredictably between talk and action, chaos and freedom; dullness and impatience; legitimate self-interest and corrupt dealings; human capital and corporate capital; community participation and individual abstraction; affect and effect; indifference and hope, anarchic space offers a voice-box, a collective larynx. Whether on social media, in print or everyday talk, it promotes what Chomsky calls "adversarial culture" and Amartya Sen dubs "argument".
John Kenneth Galbraith, an American 'friend of India' in an era much before President Obama and Michelle visited us, tells us in an 2001 Outlook interview that he invoked the idea of anarchy because he "wanted to emphasise the point...that the success of India did not depend on the government [italics mine]. It depended on the energy, ingenuity and....the wonderful adaptability and initiative of Indians that extends all the way from a village in Uttar Pradesh to a suburb in New York." Involved in the setting up of IIT Kanpur, Galbraith then declared that the "students that were brought there were part of my hope."
Some of the qualities identified by Galbraith with such astuteness ages ago have visibly come to the fore in the young, aspiring India of today. But it is the word "hope" that is crucial to his explanation - a word that Chomsky also sees as central. Chomsky, too, "would like to believe that people want to control their own affairs, they don't want to be pushed around, ordered, oppressed, etc. They want a chance to do things that make sense, like constructive work...It's really a hope about what human beings are like, a hope that if social structures change sufficiently, those aspects of human nature will be realized."
Far-reaching changes in India's 'social structures' seem to have been set in motion today, both at the state and national levels. But what effect will these changes have on the structure of our feelings, those inchoate but potent hopes and desires that are by their very nature 'anarchic'? Well, RK Laxman's beloved cartoons of 'the common man' once sardonically showed him at the venal mercy of officials and politicians. Now the common man is himself the politician.
It is this supreme but happy irony that all varieties of political thought in India must confront. What sort of future will the common man as politician envision for his society?
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