Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


Anatomy of Political Leadership: How Talmon’s Definition of Power is Relevant Now More Than Ever

Not very long ago, I had an encounter with a book of classic taste entitled ‘The Origin of Totalitarian Democracy’ authored by J.L. Talmon of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Talmon’s typonymic and polarizing terms ‘liberal democracy’ vs ‘totalitarian democracy’, his further classification of the latter into the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’, his legitimization of the term democracy with reference to totalitarianism of the ‘Left’, not of the ‘Right’, and appropriation of the epithet ‘messiahnic’ to totalitarian leaders are all exclusive contribution in the political jargons of modern history of the third world countries. The current changing scenario of political regime from the Indian National Congress to the prevailing Bharatiya Janata Party is worth critical review in the light of Talmon’s differential categorization of empirical/ liberal/secular democracy and apriorist totalitarian democracy. Supreme value of liberty is consolidated in both the categories, but they differ from each other in the attitude to politics: the liberal school locates the essence of freedom in spontaneity and in the absence of coercion whereas the state of harmony in totalitarian democracy is ordained and neatly defined a prior to which men are driven, to the paradox of freedom, as a guarantee of their ultimate freedom, it thereby smacks of the popular autocracy in the power of the totalitarian democratic leader which is, however, held as a pre-emptive dispensation of the regime to escalate the speed of desired change in the developing nations and the subsequent transformation to optimal development and modernization therein. Now, subsequently follows underneath my brief travelogue in the wilderness of politics as is so enthused by the aforesaid academic encounter.

The concept of politics may be adumbrated as the craft extra-ordinary of organizing and reorganizing all the human affairs, adopting any available possible means loaded with power and authority; not a single aspect of human social life exists beyond the pale of politics: we have political economy, political religion, politics of kinship, politics of games and sports. Politics of art and culture, and we have politics of even love and romance, marriage, gossip, friendship, alliance, hatred, war negation, antinomy and so on.

Initially, one may take politics to be a competitive game beyond which light vein of this observation, however, the resemblance of politics to games gets gradually diminutive, and their comparison thereafter becomes inept, because politics is ultimately a serious fight whereas games are by definition trivial.

Politics has its public face, and at the same time its internal private wisdom. Its public face consists in the normative rules of behavior that do not prescribe a particular course of action, but rather sets broad limits to possible actions; these rules are very general guides to conducts, used to judge particular behavior ethically thus justifying publicly a course of action.

And, private wisdom of politics works in the pragmatic rules that recommends tactics and maneuvers as to be the most efficient. Pragmatic rules are statements not about whether a particular line of action is just or  unjust, but about whether or not it will be effective. They range from rules of how to win without actually cheating to rules which advise on how to win by cheating, yet, without being disqualified.

Axial to politics is the question of leadership. Leaders matter in politics, indeed. A leader is primarily an integral member of the same society as of its general populace; the border line springs up betwixt and between them as and when the leader is, as he or she is of the destined lot to head the common mass, exalted to the ‘above- society’ position on the prop of his/her own weight of extraordinary and unique capability, embarrass de richesses, and as such he or she is prone to be randomly free from the bondage of the prevailing social norms and values of the society in as much as he or she is to responsibly lead in the tasks of political organization and reorganization of the society in response to the social selection of the same over time.

The ‘first among equals’ is the most sober and toned-down expression of the status of a leader; there exists a wide range of other types of higher positions of the leaders. History has not perhaps analyzed any truly egalitarian/acephalous (headless) society. The lineage mode of political organization prevailed writ large in the Nuer society of Sadan of Central Africa: this feature alone should not classify this community as a headless society, however; because, not a single specified power/duty is institutionally assigned though to the lone leopard- skin wearer of this community, he can’t but be a head of certain type/stage, symbolic or embryonic. The 19th century evolutionary anthropologist H.L. Morgan’s ‘primitive communism’ remains a controversial concept, either; even granted its existence in certain incipient form at the dawn of history, possible working of certain elements of pristine gerontocratic form of organization in it at that early stage of human cultural evolution can’t wholly be ruled out. There is at same time the universal fact of the innate trait of ‘political man’, analogously with ‘economic man’ of economics. This intrinsic category of human behavior finds its manifestation also in the informal/casual social situation where one unfailingly behaves to dominate/get the upper edge of the other fellowmen. The first among equals thus sounds more an idiom of political modesty behind which there still lurks a relation ‘hierarchicus’, and is thereby a political rhetoric. All men are equal and should have equal amounts of political power: this is a contradictory use of the word ‘power’. Power means that men are not equal. It seems more likely that some men are more equal than others. In most societies there is absence of normative rules allocating authority; even in those societies having the same along with the presence of pragmatic rules some are able to coerce or influence others without, of course, giving them the moral right to leadership. F.G. Bailey (1970,P, 35) says: “At the other end of the scale are cultures which proclaim, as does Indian caste system or any other elitist ideology, that all men are not equal and that the chosen few have the moral right – sometimes the divine right – to rule.”

U-turned, now, to the question of the weight of the extra-ordinary/unique capability of a leader that had already been opened ahead, it is hereby laid open that the capability in point is rooted in the factoring exceptional psychic potentialities of the person(s) concerned. Wrought and influenced thereupon by the varied external socio-cultural niches and other environmental coefficients, the given psychic endowments respondently dovetail with transformations of the personality traits and complexes of the individual into considerably wide-range of types, say, from those of the intellectuals/scientists of high watermark and top political leaders to those of the notorious scoundrels/criminals and a series of other types in between. A popular school of thought in sociology of law holds it that a criminal miserably subject to strong social stigma and slanders, whatsoever offence he/she might perpetrate, should not rashly and imprudently be treated with corporal punishment, for on proper correction of his/her impulsive behavior in time, such a person could most fittingly and suitably be remolded into a great prominent figure like an outstanding political leader. The error of his/her act of crime could be just a matter of refractory accident. Such a person may firmly be held as an agent of ability and talent, and hence a genius. Halventius, an eighteenth century French utilitarian eclectic who went so far as to deny any inherent difference between ability and talent, taught that ‘genius can be reared and you can multiply men of genius, according to plan’ ,a theory that was seized upon by the other egalitarians of his time. On proper and timely reorientation of his/her way of life such a temporarily aberrant person could ultimately be re-made into a great prominent public figure in any suitable walk of life; there seems to have a strong affinity of the one latently with the other as concerned with their common traits of personal temperament, such as daring courage, habit of defiance, rashness etc. which all feats of emotion and impulsion could most possibly be expedients in disguise to the ultimate and serious creative ends in politics, for instance. All of what is said above suggests the ardent compatibility and match of the scourge of the scoundrels with the overriding mania of the political brass, a light of understanding that could possibly invite a re-visit to Samuel Johnson’s pungent satire, ‘politics is the last refuge of the scoundrels’, the other way about too. We may further listen to J.L. Talmon’s report on formation of totalitarian type of leader: “In recent times we have examples of the strange combination of psychological ill-adjustment and totalitarian ideology. In some cases, salvation from the impossibility of finding a balanced relationship with fellowmen is sought in the lonely superiority of dictatorial leadership…. It is characteristic of the paranoic leader that when thwarted he is quickly thrown off his precarious balance and falls victim to an orgy of self-piety, persecution mania and the suicidal urge. Leadership is the salvation of the few, but to many even mere membership of a totalitarian movement and submission to the exclusive doctrine may offer a release from the ill-adjusted egotism” (1919, PP. 39-40).

The vitality of all wily scheming of politics consists in the binary interaction of stratagems and spoils; all political intrigues and counter-intrigues are the epiphenomena of this scheme of contradictions and oppositions. Also remarkably vagarious is the over-all course of political career. The days of political power and glamour glide in the impending chapter of uneasiness, risks, hazards, uncertainty, indeterminacy, restlessness, sleeplessness and such other dismal plight of affairs defying which, however, the political leaders rush on preparing themselves to fight zealously and relentlessly for the antecedent cozy world of high tide of their fortune for it to return with its new brighter haloes. William Shakespeare took special note of this tumultuous state of mind of those in power, and echoed the same in his famous remark, “Uneasiness lies the head that wears the crown.” Certainly, the established order of weal and woe is the theme of what the whole of politics is. One finds amazingly this universal pattern of political career best portrayed in Sir James Frazer’s excellent account of the story of the priest king of the sacred grove of Dina at Lake Neme in the Alban hills of Central Italy: “In the sacred grove there grew a certain tree which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword and he kept peering warily about him as if at every moment he expected to be sat upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stranger or a craftier.

“The post held by this precarious tenure carried with its title of king; but surely no crowned head ever lay uneasier or was visited by more evil dreams than his. For year to year, summer and winter, in fair weather or foul he had to keep his lovely watch and whenever he snatched a troubled slumber it was at the peril of his life. The least relaxation of his vigilance, the smallest abetment of his strength of limbs or skill of fence, put him in jeopardy, grey hairs might seal his death warrant…… Within the sanctuary at Neme there grew a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt entitled him to fight the priest on single combat, and if he slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of king of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis). According to the public opinion of the ancients the fateful branch was that Golden Bough….”

Observed ahead the patterned rhythm of the fortune of a political leader, a process coupling with the great historian A.J. Toynbee’s historical law of rhythmic cycle of the alternate rise and fall of the ‘Yang’ (male force) and the ‘Yin’ (female force) of human civilization. If a leader is at the peril of defeat this time, victory is his/her next soon; “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” (P.B. Shelley). Only what he/she might do would it be to toil hard harnessing the principles of work culture: determination, resilience, persistence and tenacity, and also to practice how did the kings and emperors manage to meet the challenges of doubling their might and main in the subsequent lease of high tide.

But then, what could be the secret of success in achieving power, that is, the mainstay of victory? Sadly, the question seemingly remains obscure, cryptic and elliptic in general. I cite one example to illustrate this situation: at Thanga hillock island village in the Loktak Lake of Manipur is located a divine spot in the sacred grove of ‘Thanga Chingningthou’, believed to be the abode of a ‘water deity ‘whose story it is a stringent tabu to tell on the island soil of the village. The deity is locally addressed ‘Lai Namungba’ (the forbidden deity), but the deity is at the same time ritually so glorified as the state deity of power and authority: on his gratification on the prescribed items of oblation offered to him, the devotee, a revolting/ runaway royal scion of historical Manipur was profusely blessed, as so believed, the fortune of royal succession to the throne. Obviously, the deity is the symbol of divine source of ruling power. To the irony of this mystic narrative, the secret of the religious empowerment by this particular deity is not, however, dispensed with the human domain of the village; outside of it, however, the tabu ceases to work, under which latter condition I incidentally came to discover from a Thanga friend of mine settling at a mainland village nearby the Loktak that the forbidden deity suffered the public prohibition, a customary penalty of the social (human) world for his breach of incest in his divine world. Interestingly yet, the deity is still revered and worshipped as the presiding deity of distribution of ruling power and authority in the mundane world.

Meanwhile, I would interpose the cosmogonical relationship of man to gods as: ‘god created man, and man made himself and god’. The first part of the couplet sounds to be a banal proposition while its second half has been proved true by the pioneering British archaeologist V. Gordon Childe in his master-piece man makes himself in which he has brilliantly shown how man invented his cultural properties through successive stages of cultural revolution. At any rate, man-god relationship as held above doubly suggests the fact of a continuum of two polar termini ,it having a mid-way category in between i.e. a mixed type of quasi-divine and quasi-mortal elements.

Now, in the light of the over-all consistency of the ideas and thought underlying this piece of academic work. I scarcely hesitate to locate the ‘above- society’ position of the political leaders conceptually at the above half-way man-god relationship; that is, political leaders are of the type of personality partaking half-celestial and half-terrestrial attributes. Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, the first coronated king of Manipur, as attested by the local books of history and culture, was an historical archetype of political leadership; this local premier king is rendered a dual personality, a divine being by day, and a mortal being by night. Well, the modern democratic leadership does not parallel its historical counterpart to the letter and spirit; ruling status of the former is an achieved one whereas that of the latter was one of ascription, despite which differentiation the ‘above- society’ quality of the divine kings of history lingers on permeating, more or less, the status of the modern political leaders by which reason they are accorded at least conceptually due public reverence and veneration well it depending also on their degree of dispensation of public services.

By way of final retrospect now we need a re-visit to the decisive issue of this piece of work, i.e. ‘above-society’ status, and the modality of construing this quality. The thought trend underlying the work reaches the point of fact of politics expressed while it consisting with the art of mythology. Like politics myth is equally a cultural construct of the human mind portraying reality by analogy, its logic working in metaphor and metonym, and as such producing an illusory and subjective representation of the real. This mythical art in politics may be discerned in its action in the present context in reference to the matter of nourishing the superior position of the political leaders from which vantage point they control their fellow followers below in the hierarchical structure of society; the action in point can be visualized underneath in the mythological discourse of man with nature, a cryptic theme, yet marvelously decoded in his Les Mythologiques by the French structural anthropologist, Levis Strauss and in the work of the French Marxist anthropologist Maurice Godelier on myth and history.

Man lives in his social world in unavoidable reference to the world of Nature. So, he earns experiences of the two worlds that may be divided into two spheres: What in Nature and society is directly controlled by his consciousness, and what is not. In societies of low level production technology the sphere of human control of nature is very limited; in this situation the natural world is transmuted into the illusory, phantasmatic and subjective human world by which process the individual forces of Nature assume human attributes, endowed with consciousness, will, authority and power, thereby being analogous to man, yet superior to man in respects of command of knowledge, wisdom and capability.

Opposite the above process of humanization of the natural forces mythically by man’s consciousness (in which case the direction of transposition of things is from nature to culture) yet simultaneously complementary to it by the same logic of transmutation undelaying the trans-historic, objective, unintentional, immutable and ultimate structure of the human mind, probably of the human brain, the same analogous thinking produces another effect of transmutation the other way round i.e. it inevitably and spontaneously endows man with supernatural efficacious powers comparable with those of the objective force of Nature; in this latter case the route of transposition is from culture to Nature.

In the foregoing mythical assumption of the idealities of the subjective world as objective realities of Nature, outside of man and his thought, the said imaginary and illusive realities of the subjective world are portrayed as with which it is possible and necessary to influence the order of things in human life, and using them as intermediaries that have been rendered analogous to man, but different in that they know what man does not know, they do what man cannot do, they control what man cannot, who are thus different from the latter, and are superior to him. To be certain now, anything scarcely short of to indentify these mythical idealities as the exemplum  of, and mirror for, the political leaders of the human world; reversely, the political leaders are the human embodiments of those phantasmatic idealities of mythical creation; they are prodigies endowed with the supernatural powers of the invisible forces of the objective natural world.

A positive consequence of the present analysis is religiosity of these human counterparts of those mythical imaginaries (mythical thinking includes all forms of religious thought) arising concomitantly with the human necessity of cajoling or supplicating to the invisible forces of Nature which human thought perceives as imaginary beings similar to man capable of understanding the human social issues and needs dealing with man in a favorable or indifferent temperament.

All that in sum highlights the expected, phenomenal super- mundane potentialities of the political leaders, a veritable corollary to their unique extraordinary abilities whose root is traced to their exceptional psychic endowments, a benchmark made out ahead at the beginning of this treatise, and by that very fact, deduced therefrom the religious content of their leadership in as much as they are the terrestrial manifestation of the invisible forces of Nature whose purpose it is to regulate the course of things in human society, and establish the necessary order therein by means of their charismatic power and talent.

The sacral content of political leadership assailed most pronouncedly in the theocratic polity of the ancient kingdoms, in which politics and religion were one and the same, hardly separable from each other; the kings ruled by the grace of God (divine kingship). Old theocracy now gets recycled in its modern edition in ‘political religion’ (neo-theocracy) by which political doctrine has been transmuted into political beliefs, as so exquisitely exemplified by the modern totalitarian democracy/totalitarian messiahnism, a form of dictatorship perched on ideology and popular enthusiasm completely different from absolute power wielded by a divine king or by a usurper tyrant.

Theocracy, old and new, is a government of man as starkly distinguished from liberal/constitutional democracy of Western Europe in that the latter is a government of laws pivoted on secular beliefs, and enshrined in the constitution, written or unwritten. Beliefs in secular ends can never become fully sacred; yet, greatness of the successful secular leaders is apparently measured in terms of his/her charismatic power/talent divinely/naturally endowed in them to inspire the followers with enthusiasm and devotion to them, not much significantly different from the inborn qualities of the totalitarian messiahnic leaders.

Thus, politics has been all through a mythical and for that matter, religious (religious in the sense of being variably committed to beliefs and faiths in the leaders, and their political doctrines, as a precondition of moral satisfaction in day to day lives of the individual followers, and collectively as well) exercise, yet since time earlier than the advent of true science.

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