Society is not a Carnivorous Flower

New mappings and rainbows of hope are emerging, despite the ravaged landscape of war and xenophobia, says Amit Sengupta.

In the epical and revolutionary ‘One-Dimensional Man’, and in his liberating, lyrical, long piece called ‘An Essay on Liberation’, Herbert Marcuse predicted that since the class society has been effectively eliminated in advanced capitalism, and since the communist and progressive project has no reason to succeed given the complete appropriation of the Left parties, working class and class contradictions, and with the relentless diffusion of non-conformism and conflict, it is perhaps only from the alienated, invisible, unexpected margins that creative subversion and political rebellion would emerge. These “inner city” margins of “inner consciousness” included immigrants, the Puerto Ricans, the Afro-Americans, the homeless, the jobless, the squatters and the fringe groups, the young and the students who have still not been usurped or co-opted in the “family values” or the “free market democracy” of the affluent and consumer society.

This was the new counterculture, which would also emerge in literature and song, music and philosophy, cinema and poetry, feminism and ecology, sexual and human liberation, inside the classroom and outside, in all forms. Marcuse called it the “New Sensibility” in his essay on liberation, and, surely, it seemed utopian even with the high aesthetic standards of Woodstock or the students uprisings at the Sorbonne and at Berkeley, or the new graffiti that stalked the western campus landscape: “Give flowers to the rebels who failed”. Or, “One pleasure has the bourgeoisie, that of degrading all pleasures”. Or, “Society is a carnivorous flower”. It is also a critique of the shallow and dogmatic totalitarianism of “socialist realism” in the Cold War era.

Describing the New Sensibility and the New Sensitivity, Marcuse wrote:

The aesthetic as the possible Form of a free society appears at that stage of development where the intellectual and material resources for the conquest of scarcity are available, where previously progressive repression turns into regressive suppression, where the higher culture in which the aesthetic values (and the aesthetic truth) had been monopolized and segregated from the reality collapses and dissolves in desublimated, “lower,” and destructive forms, where the hatred of the young bursts into laughter and song, mixing the barricade and the dance floor, love play and heroism. And the young also attack the esprit de serieux in the socialist camp: miniskirts against the apparatchiks, rock ‘n’ roll against Soviet Realism. The insistence that a socialist society can and ought to be light, pretty, playful, that these qualities are essential elements of freedom, the faith in the rationality of the imagination, the demand for a new morality and culture—does this great anti-authoritarian rebellion indicate a new dimension and direction of radical change, the appearance of new agents of radical change, and a new vision of socialism in its qualitative difference from the established societies? Is there anything in the aesthetic dimension which has an essential affinity with freedom not only in its sublimated cultural (artistic) but also in its desublimated political, existential form, so that the aesthetic can become a gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft: factor in the technique of production, horizon under which the material and intellectual needs develop?

This was the new counterculture, which would also emerge in literature and song, music and philosophy, cinema and poetry, feminism and ecology, sexual and human liberation, inside the classroom and outside, in all forms. Marcuse called it the “New Sensibility” in his essay on liberation.

Since it is clear that right-wing racists and sectarian nationalists have scored a victory in Britain, it is also becoming increasingly transparent that a mass of the “white” working class population has voted against the European Union. The retrograde forces unleashed by David Cameron and his bunch of Thatcherites have come home to roost and swallow him in turn. The anti-EU voters have been driven as much by xenophobia as they have been by the propaganda against immigrants, the “phobia” of mass exodus of Syrian refugees (not in Britain, surely), job losses, wage cuts, loss in subsidies, inflation, housing, health and education crises, and a general, persistent, unexplained fear of future. Many of them operated as per the primal fear driven by a shrill, racist and sectarian campaign, without even understanding the mechanics of the vote, not even the dynamics of the “globalised” political economy, or the bloodthirsty politics of war and destruction, which has now pushed Britain to the brink, and perhaps, Europe too, in the days to come.

 

Certainly, the rise of the neo-Nazis and the extreme Right in parts of Europe, especially in Denmark, France and Austria, is a pointer that a large section of the poor and working class on the margins have been “converted” for the time being by the effective use of xenophobia, the fear of immigrants and refugees, and the general slump in the IMF-driven pro-rich economy, which has hit them the most. That Podemos is again gaining ground in Spain, or that the likes of Tariq Ali and Yanis Voraufakis are calling the vote a universal kick on the backside of the right-wing politics and economics of the EU, has also exposed the multiple and complex layers of the polarisation which has stalked the European landscape in recent times.

In a prophetic piece, adapted from a lecture originally delivered at the 6th Subversive Festival in Zagreb in 2013, the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Voraufakis said:

If my prognosis is correct, and we are not facing just another cyclical slump soon to be overcome, the question that arises for radicals is this: should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?…To me, the answer is clear. Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come…For this view I have been accused, by well-meaning radical voices, of being “defeatist” and of trying to save an indefensible European socioeconomic system. This criticism, I confess, hurts. And it hurts because it contains more than a kernel of truth.

The rise of the neo-Nazis and the extreme Right in parts of Europe, especially in Denmark, France and Austria, is a pointer that a large section of the poor and working class on the margins have been “converted” for the time being by the effective use of xenophobia, the fear of immigrants and refugees, and the general slump in the IMF-driven pro-rich economy, which has hit them the most.

Indeed, Voraufakis, a strong critic of the rich man’s club in the EU during the Greek crisis and after, has never really asked for a quit vote. He had instead proposed a strong, internal and radical reformation of the EU into an entity that supports marginalised economies instead of the capitalists calling the shots. That the Greek Left split is a pointer that the Left is seriously divided in Europe, often compelled by the social and economic circumstances of the times as much as by the manipulations of Big Brother bullies like the IMF and its allies.

Indeed, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalent posturing and dilly-dallying on the issue of Brexit has not helped a beleaguered Labour party in any manner. He is already being dubbed as a mass leader without a base, who does not understand the pulse of the working class or the young, and who has allowed the situation to drift instead of taking a clear position on the political economy and the social and cultural signs which marked the rise of the Racist Right, especially in the working-class suburbs.

Significantly, the call for London as a new city state, even while the majority of the young have voted for the EU in London, and the new petitions seeking a new referendum, have opened the fissures wide, including the myths, antagonism, sufferings and conflict of capitalist development between “the country and the city”, to use a famous Raymond Williams phrase.

The principal, hysterical protagonist of Brexit, former London mayor Boris Johnson, has overnight found his lost love for Europe, even while the EU leadership seems to be quickly retorting, saying unanimously, and without a pause, Go Fuck Off!

Already, the anti-EU vote-bank seems to be shitting bricks at the thought of the disintegration and the severe repercussions on the economy and social mobility, with millions of immigrants on the brink in Britain, and the new, city-based generation fully aware that the older folks have sold them down the drain. The principal, hysterical protagonist of Brexit, former London mayor Boris Johnson, has overnight found his lost love for Europe, even while the EU leadership seems to be quickly retorting, saying unanimously, and without a pause, Go Fuck Off!

 

So how does Marcuse’s thesis hold in these complex and bleak times? I have an eclectic theory of hope, and I might be wrong, but I will still share it, however imperfect and vulnerable it might seem. In any historical circumstances, anyway, a theory of social change and optimism is always a finer and refined alternative method of praxis, than co-option, frustration and depression. The rainbow is always a more truthful and life-affirming option.

A recent social media joke in India shows a “thinking man” with his face resembling the backside of a monkey lost in a state of depression. The caption says it all: “We made an utter fool of ourselves in India, we have done it in Britain, and now we are going to do it in America.”

In any historical circumstances, anyway, a theory of social change and optimism is always a finer and refined alternative method of praxis, than co-option, frustration and depression. The rainbow is always a more truthful and life-affirming option.

Unlike in some western countries perhaps, the civil society debate in India is still rather primordial, isolated and selective, vibrant in some campuses and movements. The organised, manufactured consent ushered in by the hyperbole of the Modi bandwagon, using blatant lies, abjectly false promises, socially engineered xenophobia and a mythical, pseudo, glorified India, backed by the corporates, the media, and the upwardly mobile classes who preferred a brand of hard, cold-blooded and totalitarian capitalism instead of an “inclusive and soft” free market democracy, has been exposed for all to see. It is as clear as the killer daylight which stalked the drought-stricken landscape of mass malnourishment, hunger and farmer suicides in a heat-ravaged India of mass poverty. If Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi would take a train ride now in India now, he would discover the same abysmal and demoralising mann ki baat he had when he returned from South Africa.

Two years down under, even the statistics the BJP government and the prime minister reels out reeks of brazen lies, even while all the promises of achche din have gone to the gutter, as has most of his Swacch Bharat, Stand Up India, Skill India, Start Up India jumlas, not to mention the mythical “Nameh Ganga” or Bullet Train projects. The rivers flow as much like dirty gutters as does the politics of this pseudo-nationalist Hindutva party. Now, it seems, even the corporates and a section of media loyalists have got sick and tired of the false statistics and the false promises, even as the BJP moves from the Muzaffarnagar riots to Beef to Dadri to Kairana to Ayodhya, its only and ultimate “masterstrokes” being hate politics and communal polarisation. They have won in Assam, not only because they will win wherever there is a discredited and bankrupt Congress; they have also won because they played the anti-Bangladeshi, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant card to the hilt. This is their only and final trump card.

And, yet, as Marcuse said about the new sensibility, there is hope, for the possibility of new coalitions and alliances, for the defeat of right-wing fascism as it creates its own contradictions and social conditions of resistance and alternatives. The hope lies in the alternative currents which have mobilised in the US as it does in India and in the UK, even in other parts of Europe, namely Greece, Spain, Germany and Austria, though, not only the geography, the political unconscious across these continents are vastly different and far apart in time and space and evolution. In India, the protracted, gutsy, stoic and resilient students and the Dalit movement have shown the way against the onslaught of fascism, and this continues till this day—from FTII to HCU, JNU, Jadavpur and Calcutta University, to BHU and Patna University. This will only spread like wings of desire as the relentless onslaught of the Modi regime continues and becomes more and more brazen, with utterly mediocre third-raters from the RSS stable capturing social and educational institutions. Between Pahlaj Nihalani and Gajendra Chauhan, whatever happened to merit? This is the question which the “thinking man” with the face of the backside of a monkey, is still thinking. So why did he vote for this muscular messiah? Where is the magic potion of the “China model”?

 

In many ways, the students’ movement represents the great anti-establishment dream sequence of the young, who want to create a new society, build new scaffoldings, eliminate poverty, hunger, racism and oppression, and who want to fulfil both Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste as much as Marx’s dream of a classless society. This is a magnificent dream, and it is greater than the Great American Dream, and the very act of the dream brings with it the possibility of a new consciousness. And this dream is not that of sleepwalkers. Or the blind in the land of the one-eyed king, as the RBI Governor said cynically. Instead, it is a dream awake and wakeful, walking on fire and roses, on thorns and parched earth, on streets and rainbows, unafraid, forging new alliances, resolute, as relentless and infinite as the enemy. This is a new and original Idea of India, resurrecting into a new chapter of liberation; it rejects the prejudiced and the clichéd, and it is creating a new scaffolding each day. These are the rebels who are carrying both flowers and the dreams, and they are sick and tired of this world, and they are restless, and they don’t want the comfort and stagnation of the status quo. They have already given them a tough fight; and they will not go down easily despite the best wishes of the Repressive State Apparatus of the neo-fascists.

In many ways, the vast majority of the young and marginalised, including feminists, ecologists, Leftists, the poor and workers, who have rallied behind the progressive agenda of Bernie Sanders, represent a similar New Sensibility in late capitalism, in a different social and political context, in another part of the world. If all theory is half-complete, even in praxis, this is a cycle of history which must repeat itself again and again. It did so in the massive anti-war protests against George Bush in the US and all over the world (including a 60,000 plus protest rally against Bush when he arrived in Delhi), which included streams and alliances from all over society, from single women, mothers, cyclists, to ecologists, feminists, the LGBT community, workers, intelligentsia, and students. Even Hollywood played a crucial role. This was the vote which propelled the first Black president in the history of America. This is the same “Occupy Wall Street” vote which has again polarised society in support of Bernie Sanders, though he will not get the ticket.

Indeed, it is not the people of America who are at fault. It has always been American foreign policy to celebrate war and barbarism. War as economic growth and a profit industry for the big lobbies and capitalists, and the enrichment of the obscenely rich at the cost of the ordinary, poor and working population. The Trump xenophobia, himself a diabolical tycoon, thereby, is riding on the similar Brexit bandwagon of simulated phobia, crude racism and male chauvinism, along with manufactured lies and false promises of glory and growth, which marks the rise of muscular, chest-thumping fascism in all circumstances, as in India. The language too is as crass as ever, as is the low level of discourse, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Surely, many of the wolves and barbarians of Wall Street have joined the circus and orgy and they will turn Trump into an anti-Christ; as they did in India and in the UK, and as they are doing in France, Austria and Denmark.

This dream is not that of sleepwalkers. Or the blind in the land of the one-eyed king, as the RBI Governor said cynically. Instead, it is a dream awake and wakeful, walking on fire and roses, on thorns and parched earth, on streets and rainbows, unafraid, forging new alliances, resolute, as relentless and infinite as the enemy.

And yet, the game is not so easily won. If politics is the art the impossible, then the coming days too will see new contradictions emerge, both of triumphal nationalism and xenophobia, as much as of the New Sensibility of Hope, Resistance and Resurrection. Between despair and defeat, the twilight zone is full of possibilities. It might be a long haul, and it might be difficult and protracted, but it is social circumstances and historical ruptures that transform society and create a new epistemology; stagnations and conformism and stability only reinforce the forces of the status quo. It is only contradictions and conflict that will create the new discourse and politics of radical social transformation. It is happening and it the time to grab this rainbow and build a new scaffolding.

From FTII to JNU to London to Greece to Madrid to California, this debate will now find new flowers of rebellion, versus the carnivorous flowers of barbarism and destruction. After the ravages of war, rapes, sex slavery and hunger, and mass displacement of millions of people across land and oceans, and geographies turned upside down, new mappings are bound to emerge from the ravaged landscape. TYhey are already emerging. Maps of healing, resurrection and good faith, as the people who welcomed the refugees with open arms in Germany and elsewhere proved again and again.  Maps of new revolutions, new geographies, new cultures, new cinema, new poetry and prose, new resistances and freedoms. A denial of bad faith and the low life of a gutter. A celebration of love, beauty and play. A new sensibility.

Amit Sengupta started journalism when he was 19, even while he was working in the relief camps as a student of JNU after the State sponsored genocide of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. Since then, he has been an independent president of the JNU Students' Union, writer, activist and editor, closely involved with multiple people's movements and conflict zones in contemporary India. He was Executive Editor, Hardnews magazine, South Asian partner of Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris. He has earlier worked as a senior editor and journalist with Tehelka, Outlook, The Hindustan Times, Asian Age, The Pioneer, The Economic Times and Financial Chronicle. Till recently he has been a professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.

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