It was Thomas Paine (1736-1809) in Common Sense who said that, “Governments, even in its best state, is a necessary evil.” His was the context in which the eighteenth century English Constitution was obstructing the freedom of American settlers to determine their own affairs. Reading Niccolo Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) The Prince, it’s quite frightening to see the extent to which governments, or organisations for that matter, could go to pursue their own interests. Actual outcomes, however, are far less straightforward, thank God. But, whatever the intentions of government, when those who challenge them, like many Muslim activists, get caught up with the wrong filters or short term reactionary lenses, quite needlessly, it can lead to endless frustration, negativity and cynicism.
Being aware of meta-narratives is important. Enormous increases in cross-border flows of capital, information, people and all kinds of ideas inevitably lead to new forces of pluralism and power relations, which naturally heighten anxieties in government about their ability to manage the economy or to strengthen values and definition of citizenship. Ordinary people, too, are increasingly introduced to new viewpoints where everything seems to meet and interpenetrate. For whom the resulting sense of looming instability and crisis, for lack of agency, becomes quite often hard to make sense of.
Nevertheless, in attempts to regain control, the tendency across the board is to, rather deterministically, “level” things up. Where, the particular becomes general, subtle becomes profound, opinion becomes fact, truths become lies, and local contexts become global and vice versa. With this comes, on one hand, all kinds of predatory attitudes, and, on the other, a distinct lack of political realism and understanding of contexts and nuances.
Politicians from across the political spectrum, for example, are not all power hungry animals who avoid giving honest answers, and seek only their own benefit. The rich have always ruled and there will always be some who are more privileged than others in society. Someone has to manage the wealth of a nation and take tough decisions, as in all walks of life. No magical formula exists. And different people will have different approaches to the same problems which may or may not work to different degrees in different times and places.
Similarly, the accusation of “safe parliament” thrown around to cast doubt on the nature of so-called “open democracies,” in actual fact reflects a kind of continuity of authority that, whether it’s to our liking or not, is demanded by society. In a world of sound-bites, it is to be expected that politicians are perpetually locked in a loveless embrace with the media. Newspaper owners for their part, whether on the right or left of politics, are in the business of not only holding power to account but in doing so making money and gaining power and influence too. The balance of power between them is rarely in perfect equilibrium, much like it has never been in any society. Whatever checks and balances that may be in place in a democracy, or any other political system for that matter, they have an implicit weakness as they are all in themselves part of the same system where money and power matters.
Capitalism, similarly, does not in itself commoditise things, or deepen global crises in food systems and environmental degradation and so on. It’s always been about striking a balance between “being driven by fervour, craving and tyrannical propensities,” and the right “institutional structure and behavioural codes” to allow markets to work effectively for mutual benefit – jobs, living standards etc.[i] What matters are peoples intentions to act with good, and having moral scruples. When this is missing or depraved—and by the way no economic system is completely immune—there will naturally be toxic or unintended consequences.
Whilst no doubt it’s hard to ignore the memory of ill-treatment of colonial times, the realist would focus on responsibilities that stand before them today instead of blaming the past. What’s more, if we hope to gain people’s friendship then constantly reminding them of their bad deeds of the past is unlikely to be successful. Similarly, pushing the boundaries of cultural self-assertion whilst being seen to be doing little to adapt or improve, or to reach out to convey one’s point of viewpoint in an intelligent and convivial manner, and being scathing and cynical in return, is more likely to provoke predatory responses from others. One that attack’s their identity and makes them feel alienated and angry.
Having a sense of political realism will do much to remove a great deal of needless frustration, negativity and cynicism from Muslim activist discourses, especially on things that relate to the natural order of the world. At the very least, it will help them to think more positively and to reconnect with that gracious, less reactionary, balanced and reconciliatory nature. The sooner activist discourses make this transition the more they are likely to achieve.
[i] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999, p264.