Addressing political hostilities

I have always been wary of the liberal premise – undergirding the calls for constitutional reform to “solve” our political woes – that lions and lambs can sit around a table and, through rational discussion, arrive at consensuses on which they can all act and live happily ever after. Maybe lions and lions but never lions and lambs. Politics is always about lambs struggling to become lions and the lions fending them off.
This proclivity to struggle is ineradicable because humans, pace the liberal view, do not only act out of cold, rational calculus. There is always the messy business of predispositions, feelings, and emotions that coalesce in group solidarities, exclusions and antagonisms. All societies are, therefore “plural” to a lesser or greater degree. In our plural society where our divisions are not just around economic class issues but include ethnicity and religion – going to the very heart of ascriptive identities – the emotional effects are with us in spades because of incommensurable values. Consequently, the always latent tendency for our political struggles – and all the other struggles are ultimately over questions of power and so political – is to get out of hand.
This view of politics that places conflict at the centre goes beyond the old, familiar school of “conflict theorists” such as the Marxists. The latter, for instance, proposes while class conflict is immanent in the present capitalist conjuncture, once the working class assumes power, the conflict will disappear. Utopia would have arrived. I believe this to be a fairy tale: humans will find one or other reason to divide themselves and deal with the “other” aggressively.
There is a school of thought – “agonism” – which accepts this tendency of humans to cleave into groups that manifest hostility towards each other: agonism. But rather than treating each other as enemies to be obliterated, the “other” is considered as adversaries with positions we may not agree with but yet respect. Rather than pretending, as liberalism does, that we can always rationally discuss away the immanent hostility between deeply divided groups, agonistic politics aim to challenge and channel it in non-destructive, institutionalised ways. If this is not done, then violence will erupt periodically. Or large sections of some subaltern groups will have to be locked away as in the US. The goal is not to find consensus at any cost but to manage dissensus.
Each polity has its unique blend of incommensurable pluralism generating its own volatile melange of conflicts and consequently, there is no one silver bullet to confront them all. However, we can observe the trends in polities that have exposed the hollowness of both Marxist and liberal utopian thinking to deal with deep pluralism. Around the world – especially in the old, developed world “models” – countries are grappling with group conflicts, once thought “resolved”.
Some local groups have grasped the inadequacy of our specific political model to deal with our pluralism but their solution is still firmly positioned within the failed liberal premises. But while they invoke the advice of Sir Arthur Lewis on plural society’s re-coalitions, they never do about Federalism. In our case, I have advocated we carry the devolution all the way down to the village level. The extensive deep, institutionalised devolution should facilitate agonistic politics at the grassroots level and hopefully spare build-up of hostilities that can tear the country apart.
I am suggesting the ever-present simmering hostility – now boiling with elections around the corner – be given expression institutionally. It ought not to be moralised as a struggle between “good” and “evil”: this reinforces the feeling that the “other” is the “enemy” to be eliminated. No one gains when there are explosions. More pertinently, for peaceful regime changes, open hostilities scare away key constituencies that can secure an opposition victory. Unfortunately, the present political arrangements will ensure that whichever side wins the election, unless a system is introduced that visibly distributes power— political, economic, social and cultural – equitably among the various groups, we are ensuring that the inevitable resentment in the “remainders” will erupt sooner or later.
A radically distributed power system, best exemplified by Federalism, will encourage some of the more mature present lions not to fight to the death. There will be “something” for everybody, without the need for the beneficence of future lions.