Visuals of the last eight minutes of George Floyd’s life are extremely disturbing. Breathing is the first essential step to human life. The first breath of a new-born is an unconscious reflex. Floyd on the other hand is fully conscious of his breathlessness caused by a White policeman kneeling over his neck. In his last moments he moans for his mother, who brought him to life. The eight-minute recording is a witness to the termination of the life cycle of a human. That is why, perhaps, it has affected so many so deeply worldwide. In the same sequence of frames, we also see the policeman. He is puffed up in a cool swagger. While he crushes Floyd’s neck with one knee, he is so sure of his power that he keeps one gloved hand relaxed on his thigh.
If visuals of the death of George Floyd are stamped by torture and arrogance, the visual of eighteen-month-old Rahmat pulling the sheet off her dead mother’s body at a railway station in Bihar is suffused with innocence. The chubby toddler in a vest and a chaddi is oblivious of the difference between life and death. It is we, realising the context of the event, who are filled with sadness and rage. According to reports, Avreen Khatun, 27, was a single mother who worked as a daily wager in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. After the nationwide lockdown announced by the prime minister in the wake of the Covid-19 scare on 24 March, she had no work for two months, and survived on hand-outs from philanthropic organisations. Having no income and little succour coming her way in the place she had migrated for work, she decided to return to her village in Katihar, about 2,000 km away, in a Shramik Special train arranged by the government of India. Apparently there was little water and food served during the journey. According to her relatives travelling with her, she lost her life to dehydration and hunger a few hours before the train pulled into Muzaffarpur station.
Beyond their visuals, the other striking fact about the deaths of Floyd and Avreen is the difficulty we find in placing them within our normal moral sense. Beyond the immediate cause, we find no reasons why they had to die? How much would it have taken for the Indian Railways, which is the largest enterprise in the world in terms of numbers of employees, to provide meals and water to migrating workers? What was the need to press down on the neck of a handcuffed person lying on the ground? A systemic excess oozes out of the macabre fact of these deaths. They were caused by the nature of societies in which they lived. The deprivation, helplessness and civic dis-enfranchisement of the poor in India is legendary. Its most brutal recent proof was the forced migration of migrant workers back to rural India after the COVID-19 lockdown. While the state banned road traffic and closed railways, millions of unemployed men, women and children walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages with little food and water.
Later, when the state did re-start train services, minimal facilities were provided en-route. According to Indian Railways data 80 migrant workers died while on board Shramik Specials run between 7 and 27 May. Organised state violence against Blacks has been a long-standing reality of the United States. Police patrols in America, on average, kill one black person every day-and-a-half. Young African-Americans between 16 and 34 years old are five times more likely to be killed by police than Whites in the same age bracket.
India and the United States also claim to be the world’s largest and oldest democracies, with freedom, equality and right to life enshrined in their constitutions. How do the liberal democratic modes of state power and ideology coexist in them with systemic deprivation and racial killings? As people in many liberal democracies around the world become dis-enchanted with established political players, and right-wing authoritarianism wins popular approval by drawing upon pre-existing and more recent prejudices, it becomes essential to unravel the relationship of the liberal mode of governance with structures of economic and social inequalities. While constitutional proclamations are important, it is the institutional structure of state power, and the social bases of this power, which determines the priorities of any mode of governance.
Two faces of liberal democracy:
In the common understanding, liberal democracy is a fruitful confluence of liberalism with democracy. The core value of liberalism is liberty of a person, and the aim of its political programme is to secure this liberty from violations by arbitrary actions of the state and others in society, including “tyranny of the majority”. The core features of its programme are rule of law, constitutional form of government, guaranteed fundamental rights and separation of powers with checks and balances, including an independent judiciary. Since Aristotle, democracy has meant rule by the people, including the working poor. Its principal value is equality.
For a long time in Western political thought, democracy carried the pejorative connotation of “rule by the rabble”. The fear was that if a share commensurate with their numbers is given to the poor in state power, then the riff raff, who are always envious of the better-off, would snatch even legitimate and earned privileges. Arguments of this kind are still heard in middle class Indian drawing rooms. Even as open-minded a liberal as John S Mill in his mid-nineteenth century tract Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform advocated a plural system of voting under which everyone with a basic education would have the right to vote, but the worth of the vote would correspond to their level of education.
Universal franchise and representative democracy was the working formula under which liberalism and democracy were combined. The most visible change was in electoral strategies, which moved from elite-focused canvassing to mass campaigns. There was, however, little alteration in the actual institutions of governance. Even in Independent India, the institutional structure of the colonial regime carried on. While the privileged with means got assured access to liberties, the people at large only got formal equality. Those in power continued to rule over people, though their rule was now claimed in the name of the people. Eric Hobsbawm says in The Age of Empire: 1875-1914) that the “age of democratisation (in late nineteenth century England) thus turned into the era of public political hypocrisy, or rather duplicity, and hence also into that of political satire.” These words are remarkably apt for the current state of affairs too.
A significant step in the evolution of the liberal democratic project were popular mandates for parties which drew most of their votes from working people, the “rabble” despised both by conservatives and liberals earlier. Later developments involved efforts for distributive justice, including welfare and affirmative action, which tried to directly address existing social and economic in-equalities.
Nevertheless, societies managed under the liberal democratic mode continue to be riven by inequalities. In fact, the neo-liberal political economic programme of the past three decades has reversed many gains of the previous “welfare capitalism” and has increased inequalities. Hence it cannot be taken for granted that a liberal democratic institutional framework guaranteeing personal liberties will lead to a society of equals. The root cause of continuing inequalities under liberal democracy is the stamp of bourgeois interests on its basic conception and design.
Bourgeois roots of liberal democracy:
The realm of the bourgeoisie is the realm of private property. The politics of bourgeois demands preference of private sphere over public concerns. This is a tricky business for any state claiming to be democratic, because in any democratic polity the functions of the state are meant to be public. Liberal democracy overcomes this problem through an ingenious device, which has two components. It legally establishes a realm of universal and abstract citizenship, whose cell is an imagined person, an ideal type in the Weberian sense, who is devoid of all social properties except what the scheme of citizenship itself bestows it with.
The state-related public function of this citizenry is generally limited to voting in elections for the top state officials. Most of the rights given to it are private in nature. They have a right to association and protest in public, but the state is under no obligation to take note of their protests. The actual functioning of the state is the prerogative of a set of institutions, only one of which is elected by the people. Access to these institutions is mostly beyond the reach of ordinary people. Hence the public functioning of the state is opaque to most people.
The world of abstract universal citizenship is a de-centred network without an identifiable centre, much like the network of commodity exchanges. In fact, the liberal democratic institutional structure involving division of power and checks and balances can precisely be considered as designed to prevent the emergence of any centre. It appears as an objectively given reality to the people who are in it.
The network of abstract universal citizenship would be a perfect framework for democracy, but for the fact that actual social life is riven by multiple inequalities which separate humans into privileged and deprived. While the privileged champion abstract universal citizenship as the domain of equal freedom for all, it remains for an Ambedkar to point out that this citizenship is a top-dressing on an undemocratic subsoil, because the social consciousness of the abstract citizens is shaped and fashioned in that subsoil. One can extend Ambedkar’s observation about caste in India to capitalism, gender and race. This explains why the extension of franchise to women and racial minorities required much popular struggle in Western liberal democracies.
When inequalities cannot be ignored, when the excluded are knocking on the door (as with working-class parties in late nineteenth century Western Europe), or making their presence felt through other means like protests, rioting or revolutionary activity, or when the deprivation reaches obscene levels, as with the abject poverty of working Indians, or the broad daylight racial murders by police in the United States, then these are seen as consequences of exclusion, or insufficient inclusion in the framework of abstract citizenship. Because of its abstractness, the scheme is actually quite flexible to permit inclusions and extensions. This is how programmes of distributive justice came about before the neo-liberal era.
However, without tackling the beast head-on, the integration works only as long as the new entrants behave like the ones who are already in. Hence we see sections of the Black middle class in the United States with similar prejudices about inner-city Blacks as the Whites. A counter example also establishes the built-in features of the framework. Barrack Obama is widely hailed as the first Black president of the United States. However, being the child of a White mother and Black father, he is as much White as he is Black. He grew up in the upper middle class neighbourhood of his maternal grandparents in Hawaii, far from a typical Black upbringing in the inner cities. Yet he could gain entry to the inner realm of American politics only as a Black, because that is how Whites see him.
Radical insights into alternatives:
Historically-evolved social systems like the church, caste system, capitalism and liberal democracy produce corresponding ideological forms, which prevent people within the system from noticing their salient features. A radical politics, on the other hand, puts its frame of reference consciously outside the system, and is hence able to see some of these features. Well-meaning caste Hindus could think of dealing with caste atrocities only by integration; by letting Dalits enter temples, for example. It was, again, up to Ambedkar to point out that a central feature of the caste system is that it does not allow any sense of fraternity to develop among caste Hindus, i.e. the ones whom it privileges and who are inside the system.
When Malcolm X says of White racism in the United States, that “if he (i.e. White man) is not ready to clean his house up, then he should not have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down,” he is underlining the internal degeneration of White society, which both White liberals and conservatives do not register.
Popular struggles are taking social imagination beyond the liberal democratic framework. Two notable features of the current movement against police brutality in the United States are, one, its manifestly multi-racial character, and two, its demand for radical changes in the police system. Even though Blacks continue to be the main victims of police violence, many youth from other races have also joined in. A sequence of mobilisations against economic deprivation, like the Occupy movement and Bernie Sander’s campaigns have heightened the public resolve against any inequality. A new public of the excluded along diverse inequalities is emerging, which refuses to be pigeonholed and limited by what liberal democratic governance offers.
Similarly, while the existing governance model has responded so far to campaigns against racial brutalities by inducting more Black police officers, the current protestors are demanding dismantling and de-funding of the police system itself. This is the power of radical insight, which makes it possible for humans to envision alternatives.
The author teaches physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. The views are personal.