The Dawn: Oct 09, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Culture and system: accepting the unacceptable

Mushtaq Soofi 

‘Is oppression as old as the moss around ponds?’ writes poet Brecht. But surely it is as old as human settlements that emerged when our forebears learnt to live in large social groups. A power-driven hierarchy was what gradually provided a mechanism that regulated the activities of group members. It determined the division of work. Distribution and appropriation of what was produced strengthened hierarchy by creating enduring socio-economic classes. Status was based on work but more so on what it produced and how the produce, tangible and intangible, was shared and appropriated. Such a historical process, spread over a long period of time, created structures which gave groups on the higher rung of social order, a greater power to exploit the ones on the lower rungs, resulting in oppression that came to be accepted as natural in human affairs. Irony is that what is natural may not be human. Hierarchy and inequality emanating from power, and resultant oppression, are malignant remnants of animal kingdom of which we had been part of, and still are. Equality and non-hierarchical society are purely human notions. A human society, which resists translating such notions into social practice, is not fully humanised.

The question is why human beings continue to suffer a society that is sustained by unending use of coercion; naked and concealed. Why the oppressed, bruised by the talons of the system, do not rise and dismantle the structures which perpetuate oppression? What makes so many to acquiesce to the dictates of a few? There can be no easy or shonky political answers to such complex questions as they carry biological, economic, socio-political and cultural dimensions; manifest and hidden. If we look at the question of acceptance of the system froma cultural perspective, it may provide us some insight into the phenomenon. A social group or class that dominates evolves its specific values and norms, which on the one hand legitimise the position it occupies in the hierarchy, and on the other iterate its superiority by displaying its ensuing role as the leader of society. The dominant use implicitly and explicitly the fact of its being dominant which is an outcome of skewed socio-economic structures as a rasiond’etre of its existence, and its existence as rasion d’etre of the system that keeps frightening forces of chaos and anarchy under control. Arsenal, borrowed from physics and metaphysics, is employed to portray things the way they are as ‘natural’ and unequal positions of different social groups as pre-determined, and thus sacred. Interestingly, general perception leads many to believe that coercive institutions such as bureaucracy, security apparatus and military are the ultimate safeguards against the threats to the system. The perception is not baseless but it takes into account just one important aspect of power structure because of overbearingly tangible presence of coercive institutions that in reality are the first defence line of the system, not the last. The last bulwark of the system against the socio-historical forces of change is the culture born of the system itself.

That the culture of the dominant is the dominant culture, is a historical phenomenon and is passively experienced by the people in day today life but is not generally questioned, analysed and fully understood.

Revolutionary thinkers in the 19th century pointed out that the exploitation is not the sole driver of class based capitalist society. They developed the idea of ‘invisible power’; the pervasive influence of values, ideology, beliefs and norms in perpetuating class relations. Ruling values and ideas create false consciousness among the ruled. Ruling values and ideas are internalised by the ruled to the extent that they accept them as their own. It was Italian thinker and theorist Antonio Gramsci, who, building on the concept of ‘invisible power’, developed the notion of cultural hegemony that underpins the system. He analysed how power is constituted in the sphere of ideas and knowledge. Power, he argues, is expressed through consent rather than force or coercion and legitimacy is gained through hegemonic norms.

The argument proves to be true beyond a shadow of doubt when we look at our life at a popular level where hegemonic norms are not only accepted by oppressed individuals but are also glorified in a bid to be what their oppressor is. ‘The workers do not seek to displace their managers; they seek to emulate them. They themselves acquiesce in the general judgment that the work they do is somehow less “dignified” than the work of their masters, and there goal is not to rid themselves of a superior class but to climb up to it’, writes Robert L. Heilbroner while analysing the views of American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his book ‘The Worldly Philosophers’.

In our daily social interaction we hear the sigh repeated ad nauseum: ‘respect for difference between the big and the small (persons) is disappearing due to ill-culture of younger generation’ (Wadday Chhotay di Tameez Nahin Rahi). What in fact is being lamented is the disregard for hierarchy, a sine qua non for the continuation of class distinctions. Hegemonic norms are internalised to the extent that even God is conceived in the image of king. So many auto rickshaws and vehicles in our cities carry at their back screens the inscription; ‘Allah Badshah’ (Allah is the king of all). That King embodies an archetypal power is embedded in popular psyche. So the absolute power of almighty Allah is conceived in terms of kingship though according to the religious tradition the nature of power Allah has is altogether different from that of king’s.

If we want to have a transformed society that is less oppressive and less hierarchical, we must initiate conscious intervention in the domain of culture with a view to challenge the hegemonic norms of ruling classes. ‘Counter hegemonic struggle’ is what can liberate the oppressed from the invisible clutches of the culture that charlatans make the oppressed believe is their own. —

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