For agonistic, not antagonistic politics

For agonistic, not antagonistic politics
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

The no confidence vote (NCV) and its subsequent passing in the House of Assembly; its further reaffirmation by the Speaker and its eventual constitutional validation by our Chief Justice has only served to increase the always simmering polarization of our society into two antagonistic camps, with their ethnic cores. There are some new “parties” promoting “constitutional change” to address this but unfortunately, they all seem enamoured of the failed Liberal model we were bequeathed.

This proclivity to struggle is ineradicable because humans, pace the liberal view, do not only act out of cold, rational calculus. There is always the messy business of predispositions, feelings, and emotions that coalesce in group solidarities, exclusions and antagonisms. All societies are therefore “plural” to a lesser or greater degree. In our plural society where our divisions are not just around economic class issues, but include ethnicity and religion - going to the very heart of ascriptive identities - the emotional affects are with us in spades because of incommensurable values. Consequently, the always latent tendency for our political struggles – and all the other struggles are ultimately over questions of power and so “political” – is to careen out of control.

This view of politics that places conflict at the centre goes beyond the old, familiar school of “conflict theorists” such as the Marxists. The latter, for instance, propose while class conflict is immanent in the present capitalist conjuncture, once the working class assume power, the conflict will disappear. Utopia would have arrived. I believe this to be a fairy tale. Humans will always find one or other reason to divide themselves and deal with the “other” aggressively.

There is now a school of thought that accepts this tendency of humans to cleave into groups that manifest hostility towards each other: agonism. But rather than treating each other as enemies to be obliterated, the “other” is considered as adversaries with positions we cannot agree on but yet respect.  Rather that pretending, as liberalism does, that we can always rationally discuss away the immanent hostility between deeply divided groups, agonistic politics aim to challenge and channel it in non-destructive, institutionalised ways. If this is not done, then violence will erupt periodically, or large sections of some subaltern groups will have to be locked away as in the US. The goal is not to find consensus at any cost but to manage dissensus.

Each polity has its unique blend of incommensurable pluralism generating its own volatile melange of conflicts and consequently there is no one silver bullet to confront them all. However, we can observe the trends in polities that have exposed the hollowness of both Marxist and liberal utopian thinking to deal with deep pluralism. Britain has devolved. India continues to do so. Sudan has just fissioned as has Czechoslovakia earlier; not to mention Bosnia a tad more violently. Kenya went into a government of national unity – but that has not stopped the corruption and tensions among the groups. It was a coalition of the elites that just broadened the pillage.

ACDA has grasped the inadequacy of our specific political model to deal with our pluralism but their solution is still firmly positioned within the aforementioned failed liberal premises. I’ve asked on several occasions as to why they invoke the advice of Sir Arthur Lewis on plural societies re coalitions but never about Federalism. In our specific case, I have advocated we carry the devolution all the way down to the village level. The extensive deep, institutionalised devolution should facilitate agonistic politics at the grassroots level and hopefully defuse the build-up of hostilities that can tear the country apart. Local government should spend greater portion of the budget than the central government.

Thus far from saying that we should have a love fest going, I am suggesting the ever-present simmering hostility ought not to be fanned but given expression institutionally. Worse, it ought not to be moralised as a struggle between “good” and “evil” as is presently the case. This reinforces the feeling that the “other” is the “enemy” to be eliminated. No one gains when there are explosions. More pertinently, for peaceful political change, open hostilities scare away key constituencies that can secure victory of the “other”.

 I am further saying that the present political arrangements will ensure that whichever side wins the election, unless a system is introduced that equitably distributes power among the various groups, we are ensuring that the inevitable resentment in the “remainders” will erupt sooner or later.