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Can the Personal Be Political Again?

The world needs a political premise that is not conservative but brings together freedom, autonomy, emotion and meaning.
Shaheen Bagh

One aspect of the current surge in right-wing authoritarianism is the lingering question of gender relations. The private sphere of the family, even as it nurtures intimate relations and absorbs intense emotions, has become a site for conflict and dissidence. Today, intimate and gendered interpersonal relations, cutting across caste, class, region and the rural-urban divide, are undergoing stress without any sign of clarity. 

This, in a sense, is the very embodiment of modernity, which has introduced more expansive forms of freedom, choice, ideas of recognition and the self. But in same stroke, modernity has also pushed the idea of emotions, claims and intimacy into terminal crisis. The only mode in which it is able to achieve freedom is through contractual relations, the law and individuation. While these are necessary protections, they have their underside cutting across the gender divide. We need a new idea of mutuality and cooperation that is also emotionally intense. Can intense emotions transcend mutuality and recognition?

At the heart of the crisis of modernity is that it has fuelled hyper-separation from the collective or community and de-personalisation. This has promoted autonomy, choice and freedom, but lowered the possibility for individuals to find emotional dependency. Thus, emotional intimacy and ideas of individuality and recognition are at loggerheads. The modern notion of recognition refers, as critical theorist Axel Honneth argues, to an acceptance for increasing the range of human personality and the traits that come with it. In intimate relations, the tension this causes is acute: we demand that more aspects and dimensions of recognition be admitted and yet we require less dependency in order to enjoy our freedom and autonomy. 

This nascent tension, which is at the heart of gendered relations, replicates to various degrees of intensity in other social relations; and it is one of the unmistakable sources of the unprecedented return to conservative politics, which is taking place globally.

With depersonalisation and rationalisation and the pushing back of religion and ideas of cosmic unity of the universe, emotions and meaning-making have become difficult. Emotions and meaning are closely linked. Modernity separates the two, but it is not as if we know a better way of bringing them together. Modernity is about more bureaucratic regulation and depersonalised freedom and autonomy. Pre-modernity was about community as hierarchy and fusing of emotions and closer interpersonal ties. 

The Right offers the optics of closer community ties, while essentially reinforcing hierarchy and increasing bureaucratic control, but it produces an optics of critiquing depersonalised freedom and individuation. 

One might critique the Right for its conservative control in the name of community and organised order, but the problem really is that those who are critical do not have an alternative. The crisis of this absence is felt most intensely in gender relations and in the intimacy of private and familial life. The Right in India and elsewhere therefore reinforces a structured idea of family, as it does a structured idea of caste, class and other social identities. 

The Right also offers a story of liberation from the uncertainty of emotions, while promising to provide a more structured and self-assured community and family life. Certainty comes with hierarchy; part of the reason why we wish to flock to watching epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, or why a film like Kabir Singh becomes a walkaway hit. One might call the character of Kabir Singh toxic in its masculinity, but what it emerges from is not some simple-minded idea of patriarchy but an uncertainty of emotions alongside a toxic mix of emotions and power. It is this underlying uncertainty that partly spills over into the public domain as street violence, mob lynchings, caste massacres and communal riots, among other things.

A return to conservatism could well be understood as calling out this plasticity of depersonalised autonomy that is best visible among social elites. The Lutyens’ elites of Delhi are perhaps the best representatives of this plasticity and the pretentious culture that is visible in academic circles and among journalists, bureaucrats and socialites. It is from this vantage point of plasticity that they offer a social critique of communitarian violence or even state violence. 

Conservative right-wing mobilisation has exposed the plasticity and individuation within that call for civil rights, human rights, and civility and freedom. It has now not only disabled speaking to the traditional social elites but also to the victims themselves. Those Muslim women who stood up in protest against the CAA do not share the social vision of the liberal-progressives, but would want them to support their right to be citizens. This is at best a tenuous relation that will foster no closer ties once the issue at hand dies out. The Right understands this tenuous relation because of which it can project the support from “outside” as motivated. The support is more principled and cognitive and less experiential and emotional. They do not come from a shared lifeworld, but then the liberal-constitutional vision or constitutional morality allows precisely for such “external” support and marks it as civil society and arena of freedom.

Can there be an alternative premise on which one can bring freedom, autonomy, emotions and meaning together? This much-needed experiment seems to be ideally suited for novel gender-based experiments, where intense emotions and mutuality and reciprocity could coexist without there necessarily being a quid pro quo. It is only when we find such roots in the personal and private domain that one can possibility expose in the reverse the plasticity of emotions that the conservative Right mobilises. 

Today progressives are critiquing the empty emotions of right-wing leaders even as they themselves continue to stand in a zone of uncertain emotions. The increasing role of women in protest politics including those against the CAA, the participation in protests of women in Kashmir, the recent arrests of women student leaders; these could well be an occasion to inaugurate a process of negotiating the domain of intense emotions with depersonalised freedom and autonomy. What such a society would look like is difficult to imagine, but what it will require is a more transparent negotiation with everyday life, including what transpires in the private-familial domain and how that can be hitched to public activity. 

The conservative Right is allowing the politicisation of the hierarchical and prejudiced private and bringing it into the public domain, while the alternative needs to change the very equation of the private and public in different registers.


The author is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views are personal.

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