Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Martha Nussbaum on India's "Clash Within"

Pankaj Mishra recently reviewed Martha Nussbaum's new book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future in the New York Review of Books. The review gives some tantalizing hints as to Nussbaum's arguments, but Mishra also spends a considerable amount of time rehashing his own views (rather than Nussbaum's) on the subjects of communalism and India's evolution as a free market economy.

A better introduction to Nussbaum's ideas about India can be found in a good-sized extract from the new book that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month. (Also check out Ramachandra Guha's review here. And finally, there's an MP3 Podcast of Nussbaum's lecture at the University of Chicago you can download here; listen especially to Nussbaum's prefatory comments on what led her to this project.) For those who are unfamiliar with Nussbaum's interest in India, she has collaborated closely with Amartya Sen in the past, and also published a book called Women and Human Development that dealt with gender issues in India.

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Nussbaum is clear from the start that the main goal of her book is to help American readers see India's communalism problems in a global context. She wants to debunk Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, and suggest Gandhi as an alternative:

The case of Gujarat is a lens through which to conduct a critical examination of the influential thesis of the "clash of civilizations," made famous by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. His picture of the world as riven between democratic Western values and an aggressive Muslim monolith does nothing to help us understand today's India, where, I shall argue, the violent values of the Hindu right are imports from European fascism of the 1930s, and where the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives as peaceful democratic citizens, despite severe poverty and other inequalities.

The real "clash of civilizations" is not between "Islam" and "the West," but instead within virtually all modern nations — between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.

This argument about India suggests a way to see America, which is also torn between two different pictures of itself. One shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external "axis of evil." The other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality. At what I've called the Gandhian level, the argument about India shows Americans to themselves as individuals, each of whom is capable of both respect and aggression, both democratic mutuality and anxious domination. Americans have a great deal to gain by learning more about India and pondering the ideas of some of her most significant political thinkers, such as Sir Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi, whose ruminations about nationalism and the roots of violence are intensely pertinent to today's conflicts. (link)

What's interesting about this is the way Nussbaum -- by training a philosopher -- keeps a philosophical (rather than a political) idea at the center of her argument. She is not talking about competing political systems or the ideologies of individual political parties so much as she is trying to suggest competing ways of understanding the "self" in a world full "others."

That said, Nussbaum does get into some specific details, and outlines a version of the rise of the Hindu right starting with the arguments of Savarkar and Golwalkar, and ending in Gujarat 2002. (Some readers will agree with her version of events, some may disagree. I think she is substantially correct.)

For Nussbaum, the rhetoric of Hindutva is to a great extent a rhetoric of masculinity under threat:

The creation of a liberal public culture: How did fascism take such hold in India? Hindu traditions emphasize tolerance and pluralism, and daily life tends to emphasize the ferment and vigor of difference, as people from so many ethnic, linguistic, and regional backgrounds encounter one another. But as I've noted, the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors, and Hindus have come to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure.

At the same time, the RSS filled a void, organizing at the grass-roots level with great discipline and selflessness. The RSS is not just about fascist ideology; it also provides needed social services, and it provides fun, luring boys in with the promise of a group life that has both more solidarity and more imagination than the tedious world of government schools.

So what is needed is some counterforce, which would supply a public culture of pluralism with equally efficient grass-roots organization, and a public culture of masculinity that would contend against the appeal of the warlike and rapacious masculinity purveyed by the Hindu right. The "clash within" is not so much a clash between two groups in a nation that are different from birth; it is, at bottom, a clash within each person, in which the ability to live with others on terms of mutual respect and equality contends anxiously against the sense of being humiliated.

Gandhi understood that. He taught his followers that life's real struggle was a struggle within the self, against one's own need to dominate and one's fear of being vulnerable. He deliberately focused attention on sexuality as an arena in which domination plays itself out with pernicious effect, and he deliberately cultivated an androgynous maternal persona. More significantly still, he showed his followers that being a "real man" is not a matter of being aggressive and bashing others; it is a matter of controlling one's own instincts to aggression and standing up to provocation with only one's human dignity to defend oneself. I think that in some respects, he went off the tracks, in his suggestion that sexual relations are inherently scenes of domination and in his recommendation of asceticism as the only route to nondomination. Nonetheless, he saw the problem at its root, and he proposed a public culture that, while he lived, was sufficient to address it. (link)

I think the threatened-masculinity point is interesting, as is Nussbaum's proposed alternative. For her, the way to combat the hyper-virility of communal groups is not anti-masculinity, but an alternative conception of what it might mean to assert oneself as a man. I'm not sure the Gandhian idea of masculinity -- which has always struck me as a little weird, frankly -- is the best way to go, but this is still a provocative point.

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The one point of disagreement I have with Nussbaum -- at least from the extract I linked to -- relates to whether the "clash within" is primarily a matter of Hindus/Muslim tension. As I've been watching Indian politics over the past few years, I've been struck, first, by the degree to which regional and state political considerations have come to dominate over grand ideology and national politics. Secondly, I've been struck by the continuing electoral fragmentation by caste -- the Indian political system is not simply divided on a left/right diagram, but cut into a much more fragmentary array of caste-based political parties that can form (and break) alliances with the national parties at the will their respective leaders. Nussbaum may in fact be right about the principal problem in Indian politics (i.e., her philosophy of "the clash within"), but perhaps she needs to move beyond her current exclusive focus on Hindu/Muslim conflicts.

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