In Light of Rising Conservatism, Can The Personal be Political Again?
One aspect of the current surge in right-wing
authoritarianism is the lingering question of gender relations. The private
sphere of the family, even as it nurtures intimate relations and absorbs
intense emotions, has become a site for conflict and dissidence. Today,
intimate and gendered interpersonal relations, cutting across caste, class,
region and the rural-urban divide, are undergoing stress without any sign of
This, in a sense, is the very embodiment of
modernity, which has introduced more expansive forms of freedom, choice, ideas
of recognition and the self. But in same stroke, modernity has also pushed the
idea of emotions, claims and intimacy into terminal crisis. The only mode in
which it is able to achieve freedom is through contractual relations, the law
and individuation. While these are necessary protections, they have their
underside cutting across the gender divide. We need a new idea of mutuality and
cooperation that is also emotionally intense. Can intense emotions transcend
mutuality and recognition?
At the heart of the crisis of modernity is that
it has fuelled hyper-separation from the collective or community and
de-personalisation. This has promoted autonomy, choice and freedom, but lowered
the possibility for individuals to find emotional dependency. Thus, emotional
intimacy and ideas of individuality and recognition are at loggerheads. The
modern notion of recognition refers, as critical theorist Axel Honneth argues,
to an acceptance for increasing the range of human personality and the traits
that come with it. In intimate relations, the tension this causes is acute: we
demand that more aspects and dimensions of recognition be admitted and yet we
require less dependency in order to enjoy our freedom and autonomy.
This nascent tension, which is at the heart of
gendered relations, replicates to various degrees of intensity in other social
relations; and it is one of the unmistakable sources of the unprecedented
return to conservative politics, which is taking place globally.
With depersonalisation and rationalisation and
the pushing back of religion and ideas of cosmic unity of the universe,
emotions and meaning-making have become difficult. Emotions and meaning are
closely linked. Modernity separates the two, but it is not as if we know a
better way of bringing them together. Modernity is about more bureaucratic
regulation and depersonalised freedom and autonomy. Pre-modernity was about
community as hierarchy and fusing of emotions and closer interpersonal
The Right offers the optics of closer community
ties, while essentially reinforcing hierarchy and increasing bureaucratic
control, but it produces an optics of critiquing depersonalised freedom and
One might critique the Right for its
conservative control in the name of community and organised order, but the
problem really is that those who are critical do not have an alternative. The
crisis of this absence is felt most intensely in gender relations and in the
intimacy of private and familial life. The Right in India and elsewhere
therefore reinforces a structured idea of family, as it does a structured idea
of caste, class and other social identities.
The Right also offers a story of liberation from
the uncertainty of emotions, while promising to provide a more structured and
self-assured community and family life. Certainty comes with hierarchy; part of
the reason why we wish to flock to watching epics such as Ramayana and
Mahabharata, or why a film like Kabir Singh becomes a walkaway hit. One might
call the character of Kabir Singh toxic in its masculinity, but what it emerges
from is not some simple-minded idea of patriarchy but an uncertainty of
emotions alongside a toxic mix of emotions and power. It is this underlying
uncertainty that partly spills over into the public domain as street violence,
mob lynchings, caste massacres and communal riots, among other things.
A return to conservatism could well be
understood as calling out this plasticity of depersonalised autonomy that is
best visible among social elites. The Lutyens’ elites of Delhi are perhaps the
best representatives of this plasticity and the pretentious culture that is
visible in academic circles and among journalists, bureaucrats and socialites.
It is from this vantage point of plasticity that they offer a social critique
of communitarian violence or even state violence.
Conservative right-wing mobilisation has exposed
the plasticity and individuation within that call for civil rights, human
rights, and civility and freedom. It has now not only disabled speaking to the
traditional social elites but also to the victims themselves. Those Muslim women who stood up in protest against the CAA do not share the social vision of the
liberal-progressives, but would want them to support their right to be
citizens. This is at best a tenuous relation that will foster no closer ties
once the issue at hand dies out. The Right understands this tenuous relation
because of which it can project the support from “outside” as motivated. The
support is more principled and cognitive and less experiential and emotional.
They do not come from a shared lifeworld, but then the liberal-constitutional
vision or constitutional morality allows precisely for such “external” support
and marks it as civil society and arena of freedom.
Can there be an alternative premise on which one
can bring freedom, autonomy, emotions and meaning together? This much-needed
experiment seems to be ideally suited for novel gender-based experiments, where
intense emotions and mutuality and reciprocity could coexist without there
necessarily being a quid pro quo. It is only when we find such roots in the
personal and private domain that one can possibility expose in the reverse the
plasticity of emotions that the conservative Right mobilises.
Today progressives are critiquing the empty
emotions of right-wing leaders even as they themselves continue to stand in a
zone of uncertain emotions. The increasing role of women in protest politics
including those against the CAA, the participation in protests of women in Kashmir, the recent arrests of women
student leaders; these could well be an
occasion to inaugurate a process of negotiating the domain of intense emotions
with depersonalised freedom and autonomy. What such a society would look like
is difficult to imagine, but what it will require is a more transparent
negotiation with everyday life, including what transpires in the
private-familial domain and how that can be hitched to public activity.
The conservative Right is allowing the
politicisation of the hierarchical and prejudiced private and bringing it into
the public domain, while the alternative needs to change the very equation of
the private and public in different registers.
The author is associate professor, Centre for
Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views are personal.