By Dr Dervaish Apriday
May 14, 2020
Aristotle believes that anyone, who “… does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” He argues that Man is ‘zoon politikon’ – a political animal, as distinct from other animal species.
What makes humans political is, accordingly, their capacity for speech. To differentiate between humans and other animals, Aristotle maintains that the former has the capacity for speech whereas the latter can make only voices that help them express their basic instincts. Speech enables us not only to voice our basic human instincts but also to exchange with one another our opinions and generate consensus concerning common social/public issues.
The question, ‘what is politics?’ still remains unanswered for those who are not familiar with political theory. In simple words, politics is the struggle for gaining and/or maintaining power. And, power is defined as the capacity to control others’ behavior. However, in common parlance, politics (and the related concept of ‘power’) is narrowly defined – the apparently ‘non-discursive’ (non-linguistic) human activities pertaining to the public aspect of human existence, such as partaking in electoral and organizational activities, and institutionalized policymaking and policy-implementation processes. Drawing on the post structural/postmodern tradition, I argue that politics is pretty much more than the seemingly ‘non-discursive’ human actions.
As mentioned above, power is the capacity to control people’s behavior. Nevertheless, juridical (what is also known as ‘negative’) power does not suffice to maintain control over people’s behavior. By juridical power I mean the formally (as well as informally) institutionalized instruments of control, such as legislature, military, police, and jail.
The juridical/negative power needs to be supplemented with what Foucault calls positive power, which refers to the capacity of someone (an individual or a group) to control others minds by creating and propagating a system of meanings (discourse/knowledge) that normalizes certain behavioural patterns. It makes certain worldview(s) and actions appear normal and common-sensical at the expense of others. Once a considerable majority of people accepts the official system of meanings (discourse) as normal, juridical power gains legitimacy. Those who accept the official worldview as normal fail to question the extant structures of power, even if they are relegated to a subordinate position in those structures.
Hence, language/speech related to a public issue is not (and cannot be) apolitical in nature. Every system of meanings (discourse/ideology) is so devised as to control people’s thinking, through a conscientious use of language/speech. Both the state elite and the challengers employ language (both written symbols and spoken words) to maintain or subvert the existing power-relations.
For instance, there are two dominant discourses pertaining to poverty in our country: one is religious; the other is Marxist. The former posits that poverty and classes, rich and poor, are the creation of God. The Almighty wants to test our faiths with our respective poverty and affluence. On the contrary, the Marxist discourse argues that widespread destitution is the outcome of unjust, exploitative capitalist market mechanisms. The former (religious) discourse depoliticizes poverty, as if it is not the product of human machination; the latter (Marxist) discourse politicizes poverty by attributing it to the institutionalization of private property, which can be (and should be) abolished through conscious, organized politics on the part of the proletariat.
In other words, the conservative, religious elite legitimizes the existing economic-cum-political structures of relations, while progressive, Marxist thinkers try to subvert them. To say the obvious, the elite of a capitalist state would promote the former (conservative) discourse, and would patronize the discursive community that propagates it (the religious elite), in order to maintain the status quo.
Given the significance of speech, a regime (especially an authoritarian one) tries to establish monopoly over the means of cultural/meanings production and distribution. It tries to co-opt and patronize civil society organizations and social intuitions, like media, mosque and education, and use them as, what Althusser calls, the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). The ISAs procure and mobilize popular support for the regime and its policies.
Take the example of the Tablighi Jamaat. Its elite have somehow managed, quite tactfully, to have most of us believe that the Jamaat is apolitical, because it does not participate in any organized electoral activity and has not let its platform be formally used to solicit popular support for any electoral party. Nonetheless, the Jamaat is as political as any other human collective can be, although its modus operandi is quite subtle, not easily perceptible. It ‘depoliticizes’ almost every common social issue – ranging from poverty to terrorism to socio-political injustices to Covid-19 – by attributing them to the wrath of God invited by the ‘misdeeds’ of Man. Resultantly, the masses tend to appease and entreat God, instead of getting themselves (politically) organized to challenge the status quo.
In fact, nothing (speech, in particular) is apolitical when it comes to common issues and resources. Every social issue and injustice is the product of politics – mostly of authoritarian, exclusivist politics. To overcome them, we have to consciously partake in organized popular politics.
Let’s not forget that (free) speech is the necessary, though not sufficient, condition for the emancipatory politics. Therefore, the first thing an authoritarian regime does is curtail the freedom of speech of the opposition while providing every discursive platform to its allies so as to maintain its grip on the state and society. Only politics, the discursive one in the first place, can help the oppressed fight the injustices they face.
Dr DervaishApridayteaches at the department of gender studies, University of Peshawar.
Original Headline: Politics and the Tablighi Jamaat
Source: The News, Pakistan