Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


Public Morality and Death of Politics – Part 1

On politics, law and society

Dirty politics is nothing but an oxymoron. It communicates a discomfort with the attempts to subvert politics. It also simultaneously sows the seeds of a desire to rescue and reinstate politics. Similarly, abuse and exploitation public office, its wealth and power, for personal aggrandizement and sheer exercise of power irrespective of institutional probity and public morality, including constitutional morality, is not politics but subversion of politics itself. Only when we understand the nature of politics, would we know why this is so.

Politics and Normative Order

Politics is a Janus faced animal. One consists of tangible human actions, and the other pertains to the intangible ideas and values of what one ought (or ought not) to do or be. In other words, one pertains to conduct, and the other is the normativity that guides those conducts. It is this nature of politics that distinctively marks out human beings from other animals. That’s how our collective life is created and sustained. In other words, it is this nature of politics that sustains and drives our ordered life, a “civilized” existence wherein people can strive for meaning and purpose of life itself.

However, when we think of politics, we tend to focus on one side of politics, that is, conduct. What people do, especially those manoeuvres that the politicians do in order sustain their access to the wealth and power of the state often overwhelms our sense of politics. But a closer look will show that these activities (of the politicians and political actors) are always driven by or couched in a normative frame. Therefore, ability to see this normative face of politics is indispensable in responding to any political development. In fact, one can’t quite do politics without invoking its normative dimension. For instance, political contentions often invoked “wrong” doings, “corrupt” practices etc of the political adversaries. These are reminders of the normative face of politics.

Bereft of this normative face of politics — that is, the ideas and values of what ought (or ought not) to do or be, only instrumentality of human acts, mostly rooted in narrowed interests which are cantered on basic (biological and safety) needs, shall remain. And that, quite obviously, is not to be fully human. We would be indistinguishable from the beasts.

It is an understanding that Aristotle articulated centuries ago. When he described human beings as zoon politikon — the “political animal”, he was reiterating the fact that we are part of animal kingdom but unlike other animals, we have an “additional life”. And that extra element is our political life which is a qualified life, and hence it is inextricably tied to a normative order. It is this normativity that makes politics teleological, enabling it to propel us to strive for (and lead) a “good”, “virtuous” and “happy” life. Thus, for Aristotle, it is this normative side that brings in ethical issues in politics.

Here, ethics is not merely some abstract idea or artificial element. It is a natural outcome of human existence, something that flows from, as Aristotle suggests, human beings’ capacity for thinking and speech. It is a product of practical questions, things that come out of our existence itself. Politics is our way of searching for and ensuring “good”, “virtuous” and “happy” life. In this sense, it is a concrete reality of human existence. Sociologically speaking, the normative side of politics is, to use Durkheim’s concept, a “social fact”, that is, something that exerts coercive influence on individuals.

Thus, when this nature of politics gets subverted, you have the prospect of a decadent life with people being reduced to what Hannah Arendt calls animal laborans — akin to beast doing things to sustain its life merely as an organism — and bare lives without the normativity that marks human existence.

Are these ideas merely (academic) theories? Certainly not. It is an empirical fact. Those who think that these are merely theories don’t quite understand as to why they feel offended when politicians jump from one party to another and/or abuse and exploit public offices for their personal gains. Fact is, they are offended precisely because they are human beings (as political animals) and politics has a normative side. If their nature is not that of being political animals (and correspondingly, politics has no normative side), there is nothing that would explain as to why they resent those politicians who abuse power, law and state institutions. Similarly, even the most corrupt politicians or (military) dictators would seek to justify their acts in the name of the people or the nation etc. That’s what modern republican and democratic norms demand. Even when their conducts are deeply driven by narrowed self-interests, those needs have to be masqueraded. They cannot discard the normative side of politics; what ought (or ought not) to do or be shall impinge upon them to present their acts as those which are being carried out in the interests of the people etc.

For instance, even if money and wealth that are derived from illegal activities such as drug peddling were to be implicated in the accumulation of wealth by politicians and their enhanced capacity to be contenders in elections, none would acknowledge that. For that matter, none would dare say that the menace of (illegal) psychotropic drugs should be encouraged or peddlers of such drugs should be protected. In short, these are the empirics which show that politics has a normative side.

As it’s been noted earlier, contestation of power is also mediated by normative concerns. Take for instance, revolutionary forces that seek to subvert or destroy an existing institutional edifice and/or its corresponding normative order. Such forces do so with a promise of alternative institutions and normative order. In short, exercise of violence as a political act is not done devoid of a normative mediation. One must add, this is notwithstanding the suggestion, especially by some continental thinkers, that violence could be an initial act coming from a decision that constitutes the political itself in its elementary form. For, that political in its rudimentary form cannot exist solely to govern our ordered existence, even as it is ever present.

Incidentally, war, an organized act of murder and plundering, the ultimate manifestation of (physical) violence, is sought to be domesticated by normative order. Some societies have (ethical) codes on how to conduct war (e.g., Chainarol of Manipur). Similarly, not only Geneva Conventions, professional military forces also have dos and don’ts for their professional soldiers while carrying out military operations. There is nothing surprising about this. For, it flows from the basic telos rooted in the normative dimension of human existence. Thus, any act devoid of a normative mediation can only lead to the destruction of an ordered life, polity and politics that governs it. In fact, it shall ultimately undermine society itself.

Society, Law and Normative Reality

Like polity, society itself is also rooted in a normative order. To paraphrase and invert Emile Durkheim’s formulation, once morality disappears, all social life shall also disappear. Therein lies the importance of public morality. It sustains the collective order. It is not that moral standard of society is static or cannot be challenged. It differs from society to society, from one moment to another moment in history. And individuals can, and do, challenge or negotiate such moral standard to derive her/his own sense of what s/he should do. But as long as a given standard of morality remains dominant framework that sustains society, as Durkheim suggests, such individual choices shall remain private, and/or s/he would also run the risk of being a misfit or treated as an outcast.

Of course, in the contemporary world, due to globalization and inter-cultural diffusion, traditional moral standards in many society get challenged and altered. Consequently, there are competing moral standards within a given society. For instance, sexual morality has been one such domain. Morality associated with the idea of “pre-marital sex’ has changed in many societies. In fact, sexual morality associated with marriage has gone through mutation as a consequence of questioning what constitutes “natural sex” and purpose of sex itself. From being predominantly seen as a means of procreation, sex for pleasure and as a means of self-acknowledgement, affirmation and expression have come to guide sexual behaviour. Prevalence and/or acceptance of phenomena and practices like same sex marriage, “fuck buddy”, “friend with benefits”, “open relation” etc are testimonies of this altered or alternative (sexual) moral standard.

But underneath these variegated moral standards, there are certain common ideas and values as well. One key idea is the basic acknowledgement of individuality and respect for the “individual” — her/his rights, choices, dignity and well-being. This has been one modern idea which runs in many political thoughts, particularly liberalism. Idea of “human rights” is fundamentally rooted in such basic acknowledgment of, and respect for, the individual. Even if one challenges or chooses certain moral frame which is different from what society in general holds, if it does not acknowledge and respect the individual — her/his rights, dignity and well-being, it is seen as a flawed moral standard.

Incidentally, such ideas and values get extended to even the dead body and condemned criminals. For instance, there are legal prescriptions to provide adequate means to those who are accused of crimes, including heinous ones, to defend themselves. Besides there are also protocols to ensure “dignity’ of a person who has been condemned to death just as there are instructions to ensure that even the dead body is treated with certain decorum. Thus, from the moment we are born into this world, as a social being, we are not only thrown into a moral order but we have also been the embodiment of morality itself.

One of the key aspects of our normative order is “constitutional morality”, that is, a basic respect for constitution, its “spirit” and “essence” or the ideas around its “basic structure”. There have been juridical pronouncements which invoked constitutional morality. Notwithstanding the debate around it, especially the reservation that some have against this idea in its relation to moral standards of society or moral standards that common people have, the primacy of the constitutional order has been the hallmark of many existing democracies in the world.

Similarly, notwithstanding the debate on law vs. morality (Hart-Fuller debate in jurisprudence), and that not all standards of conduct may be derived from a “moral” framework, the fact shall remain that law is a manifestation of normativity which marks human existence. This is understandable. First, there is an inextricable relationship between morality and social life (as Emile Durkheim argued). Second, the evolution of civilization is basically founded upon the establishment of rule of law (as Sigmund Freud postulated)These two positions only affirm the fact that human existence as political animal cannot be anything but normative.

This, however, does not mean that politics can be reduced to law. This is irrespective of the fact that during the last few centuries, there has been a process of undermining politics — one, by reducing politics into law and another by what Hannah Arendt calls “the rise of the social”. Along with these processes, sheer instrumentality of certain ethos and practices, this decline of politics seems to mark a process of the death of politics in some places. Sanaleipak, as Manipur has been called, is a case in point. Let us look at the nature and implications of this death of politics in this little paradise…

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