“A zoologist who observed gorillas in their native habitat was amazed by the uniformity of their life and their vast idleness. Hours and hours without doing anything. Was boredom unknown to them? This is indeed a question raised by a human, a busy ape. Far from fleeing monotony, animals crave it, and what they most dread is to see it end. For it ends, only to be replaced by fear, the cause of all activity. Inaction is divine; yet it is against inaction that man has rebelled. Man alone, in nature, is incapable of enduring monotony, man alone wants something to happen at all costs—something, anything… Thereby he shows himself unworthy of his ancestor: the need for novelty is the characteristic of an alienated gorilla.”
―EM Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born
The growing trend of authoritarianism across the globe has been a difficult phenomenon to explain. Conventional political economy explanations do not clarify this trend adequately, as authoritarianism has grown everywhere, in advanced capitalist countries such as the United States and in moderately developed nations such as India. While it grew when the economy was on down-slide in the United States, it grew in India when things were upbeat and expectations and aspirations were rising.
This is why most scholars moved from political economy explanation to more sociological answers, relating to the role of symbols, emotions, social psychology, morality, values, and identity, in creating such situations. The latter were seen as a filler, things that could explain phenomenon that are not strictly economic or social in character. For instance, why did working people, who are unhappy with growing inequalities, the falling standards of living, and joblessness, return to power governments that are more pro-corporate? This is where emotions and psychological gratification became important explanations, independent variables to account for why people voted a particular way, and how political behaviour is never strictly material but determined by extra-economic factors.
It is, however, not sufficient to stop at the study of emotions and values, even as they continue to be more pronounced in relation to politics. We also need to look for more intangible factors that might have come into play in determining modern social, and thereby political, behaviour. Such factors are often noted to exist but still not taken into account in general.
Factors such as loneliness, boredom, monotony, I reckon, are playing a more significant, even if silent, role in how people cutting across castes, classes and gender are responding to public and political affairs. Modern societies are significantly different in not only being complex, as Weber notes, but in essentially turning the meaning-making exercise into a very difficult process. Social differentiation, speed, social media and digital images make it difficult to generate a shared social ethos. Without shared meanings, myths and values, we are at a loss as a collective. This is certainly a source of loneliness, but it is also a cause of monotony. As cultural sociologist Zygmut Bauman notes, we are infinitely freer than people in pre-modern societies were, but we do not know what to do with freedom. We have choice but no shared ways of valuing the choices before us.
Pre-modern societies created meaning through religion, rituals, and divinely-ordered rules of sacredness. These created a bounded reality. Today, societies are much more open and transparent, but precisely for this reason they have become relativist and the larger spiritual question as to what is the meaning of life has become all the more difficult to answer. Life, in a strange way, has become less certain but more predictable; freer but less authentic; more transparent but less exciting. It is at the cusp of these latent changes that the need for authority, power, and demonstrative culture is growing. The rise of right-wing politics seems to also be a way out of boredom, monotony and meaninglessness.
Right-wing politics, through the expansion of social media, has made the creation of everyday spectacles a possibility. The ongoing issue of Rhea Chakraborty is a brazen example of our desperate need for entertainment and gossip, to let the imagination run wild, nudge conspiracies into existence and acknowledge them, and to foster a your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine culture. Even if it all looks like a blatant violation of her rights and privacy, evil still appears more entertaining, for it holds the capacity to beat the monotony compared with goodness, which is often simple, flat, predictable and self-effacing. Goodness is good for personal and intimate relations, but it is neither exciting nor affordable when it comes to engaging with public affairs.
Could monotony and boredom be the silent sources of energy of the right-wing authoritarianism that we see everywhere? The Right represents the actualisation of a nihilistic way of living. The burden of searching for meaning has given way to celebrating nihilism as a legitimate way of life—so long as it helps us collectively share and become part of a spectacle, even one that is momentary, even if we are acutely aware that it will provide us no direct benefit.
This is where the economic crisis is not translating into a ready source of protest and resistance. The hard reality of material needs can be potentially bargained, at least for the time being, for a mode of governance that breaks boredom and monotony with unpredictable decisions which generate excitement: late-night announcements, the drawing of bizarre links between the virus and virility or moral character that gives one something to speculate about. Something that at least feels correct, or possible, as in Rhea’s case. There is at least the possibility of a plot here, so why not think and live through it?
Rationality, evidence and scientific temper, whatever else they might mean, are certainly more boring, repetitive and predictable than all of this. The rational mode of being is also necessarily more detached and unencumbered, whereas the current mode of speculation creates a sense of celebration, even festivity—just the kind of situation that is created during elections in India.
It would be far-fetched to believe that people are unaware of the way in which spectacles like the Rhea matter are being manufactured. But it is precisely for being manufactured that the content becomes exciting, because it allows us to imagine what directions the narrative can be pushed in; creating a “manufactured spontaneity” and excitement. Politics today needs a wider array of variables to make sense of why people are responding in ways that they were not expected to. In this also lies the clue into why this phase may pass over.
CPS, JNU. His forthcoming book is titled Emotive Majority: Ethics and Emotions in New India. The views are personal.