Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mutant Modernities, Socialist Future

- Ravi Sinha

Modernity and socialism can be daunting subjects. Both have had a long history and both have impacted on humanity in ways few other ideas, systems or forms of life have. In a famous incident, perhaps not entirely apocryphal, Chou En Lai, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution on the western civilization by Richard Nixon, is supposed to have answered, “It is too soon to tell.”[1] It seems to me that Chou’s riposte would hold well, and with a far greater force, if the same question were to be asked a few hundred years from now about the impact of modernity or of socialism on the entire human civilization.

One asks for trouble on other counts too when proposing to deal with these topics. They have both been explored and debated endlessly and both remain enormously controversial. In the domain of ideas and theories, they generate intense, sometimes fierce, intellectual passion. In the domain of real life, they give rise to monumental conflicts and struggles even as their influences continue to seep imperceptibly into ever deeper layers of societies and forms of life through pathways that are hard to track. One must have a good reason for raking up, as many might say, a subject where ashes of time find it difficult in any case to settle on an exasperatingly burning fire. Those too, who would like to continue stoking the fire of historical and emancipatory transformations promised by these words, would need a good reason for re-entering the subject. Whether I have one or not should best be left to be judged at the end of the hour, but one must hope to add something useful and meaningful to the debate.

It is not the case, however, that these two words – modernity and socialism – always invite similar reactions or attitudes. That, in fact, would have been surprising. After all, they belong to two different categories of concepts and they have been differently implicated in history during last several centuries. Socialism is supposed to be a system just as capitalism is a system. Or, more accurately, socialism is a transitional system that is supposed to take us beyond the capitalist system. Modernity, on the other hand, remains elusive to all exertions of capturing it as a well defined concept, category or entity. Such is the case even after enormous expenditures of formidable intellectual energy by philosophers, theorists and historians, including the legendary ones[2], across the last three or four centuries.

Among many commonalities and differences in attitudes evoked by these two concepts, one difference is especially noteworthy. More than a decade ago, my friend, Javeed Alam, came out with a book that he interestingly titled – India: Living with Modernity.[3] Given the history of modernity during the past two centuries, and especially the theorizations about it during the latter half of the twentieth century, it seems to me that everyone wants to live with modernity, but no one is willing to sign the papers. A kind of shamefacedness, if not outright concealment, is very commonplace, as is the case, in most societies, with the live-in relationship in its more regular meaning.[4] Societies that have lived with modernity for centuries take the pleasures and the comforts for granted, but there is a growing sense of weariness in the relationship. Other societies, charmed by modernity in more recent times, have entered into a relationship with it, but they keep announcing their being wedded to cultures, traditions and ways of life that would not sit well, in most cases, with the new relationship. Most curious is the case of intellectuals of the postmodern type who come from both kinds of societies. Like the fin-de-siècle artist who would paint ugly portraits of his live-in partner while keeping alive the romance of imagined seductions from the times gone by, these intellectuals draw such caricatures of modernity that pre-modern times begin to look attractive and desirable. Caricaturing appears to be an integral part of the intellectual strategy to facilitate the argument that modernity’s hands are soaked with blood of all the victims of capitalism and colonialism.[5]