The notions of civilisation, culture, democracy, freedom, equality and justice are used frequently in the political discourses of our modern era. In our mundane discussions on politics, drawing room analyses, tea stall political chitchats and frivolous media talks, we use these concepts so loosely that they look like hollow slogans.
In the popular parlance, these concepts get assimilated in a prejudicial discussion about individual actions rather than the collective conviction to uphold the principles beneath these concepts. Many among us mistake wishes for facts and continue to rely on our whims without a critical reflection on our facile views of civilisation, culture, democracy, freedom, equality and justice. This leads to the freedom of disinformation, which no one dares to question out of the fear of being labelled as conservative, backward and rustic.
In our daily conservations, we are so apt to use these terms that we tend to create our own subjective meanings to suit our positions, viewpoints and individual interests without being accountable for misusing them. These concepts are broad, complex and rooted in the historical evolution of human societies across the world.
Civilisation is a process of the advancement of human societies through a creative engagement with nature by producing goods and services for collective use. Central to this process of advancement is human creativity that materialises through an interplay of labour and resources. The control over labour and resource is, therefore, the root cause of social conflicts, political reconstruction and economic reorder within human society.
This historical process of political and economic conflict is sublimated and managed through common modes of expression like music, dance, literature and education. The ruling elite – or those who have the power to control labour and resource – provide patronage for these common modes of expression. These common modes of expression are collectively termed as culture.
In this sense, culture is political because its instruments – music, poetry, dance and literature, etc – are used by the elite to diffuse the potential conflict and anger against the status quo. In modern societies, there are two types of resources in broader terms: hard and soft resources. The hard resources are land, industry, technology and capital while the soft resources are the media, the law and education.
The ruling elite who exert control over the hard and soft resources strive to divert the popular resentment against the political and economic order. This diversion of potential conflict becomes possible when cultural instruments are employed to sublimate popular anger against the system into music, dance and poetry. The production and preservation of culture is fundamentally a political instrument of control and subjugation.
Having said that, it is also important to note that music, poetry and dance have also been used as a means of resistance against political subjugation. In Pakistan, popular music, poetry and folk dance became political insignias of resistance against the dictatorial rule of General Zia during the 1980s. As a result, cultural instruments were not only used by the ruling elite to diffuse the popular resistance, but were also used by subaltern groups to counter the political suppression. Habib Jalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sheema Kirmani and Laal (a musical group) – to mention a few – used art as an instrument of popular political awakening.
Historical progression and the civilisational journey are interlinked to produce specific cultures in historical times as a cumulative impact of this process. In a way, civilisation is a process of the production of cultures, economies and political systems in a geographical region. The major civilisations of the world were shaped out of the geographical, political and economic necessity of survival that has evolved over time.
The human quest to control nature in order to fulfil social needs gave origin to technology. This, in turn, disrupted the political and economic orders at the global level. The journey of civilisation – from ancient times as a geographically-located empire to our era of global citizenship – has been full of conflicts, transformative reverberations and its historical progression is likely to continue.
Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilisations is discredited by the processes of economic integration beyond the geographical boundaries of ancient civilisations. Two devastating intra-civilisational wars of the 20th century – the first and second world wars – were fought within the geographical domain of Western civilisation. These wars also indicate the fact that the modern capitalist democracies brought unprecedented miseries to the human race.
The intrinsic principle of a capitalist democracy as a force of transformation is questionable within Western societies and beyond as a desirable political goal of global citizenship.
I would not mind saying that this piece is a paean to all those who have the guts to think beyond the obvious to explore concepts as important as democracy rather than succumbing to an exotic political notion. When Donald Trump justifies his supremacism and xenophobia as vital to strengthen the American democracy and monarchs and dictators are supported at the cost of the people by the so-called developed democracy of the world, we must take a pause and reflect.
There is something terribly wrong with modern democracies when we assert that they are founded on popular aspirations. Democracy is not compatible with the neoliberal global economic order as the electoral process is framed through corporate funding. The will of the people to choose is manufactured through heavily-paid media campaigns. Critical thinking and ideological engagement in democracy is critical to ensure that the will and voice of the people matter.
Critical thinking is essential to the synthesis of ideas. But this will only remain an interpretation if it is not translated into a well-informed movement of political, economic and social transformation. The articulation of the ideals of a better society cannot automatically transform human destiny without any collective action to attain that goal.
Human history is full of examples where new ideals were transformed into action. The ideals of freedom, fraternity and equality were translated into collective action during the French Revolution of 1789. The ideals of a socialist democracy were translated into a well-coordinated working-class movement during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In the anti-colonial struggle of India, Bhagat Singh and his comrades managed to shake the largest empire in the world.
Democracy, equality and justice can only prevail if these political ideals are translated into action through concerted and collective movements by the people. Democracy, culture, equality and justice may be used as instruments of control and subjugation by the powerful. But these ideals can also help emancipate the people from various forms of tyrannies. What is needed is informed action and a commitment to create a society where people can live with peace, dignity and freedom.
As Jean Paul Sartre once said, man is condemned to be free, but has a price to pay. Pakistan must go a long way and pay his due price for preventing a real democracy from prevailing. But this is a price worth paying. There is no shortcut other than democracy to transform Pakistan into a prosperous, peaceful, tolerant and pluralistic society.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
Amir Hussain, "A long way to go," The News. 2017-09-22.
Keywords: Political science Political issues , Political conflict , Political discourses , Democracy , Economy , Politics , President Donald Trump , Gen Zia , Pakistan