Populist politics has foregrounded a key aspect of modern life: the moral psychology of social and cultural existence. Morality is an important dimension of collective living, but it is important to identify its limits when it turns toxic and becomes a nuisance for others.
Populist politics gives political action a moral framework, for it demands a kind of authenticity. Yet in the process, it questions even the reasonable limits that modern institutions and laws impose. Right-wing morality posits a binary: one is either seen as morally closed-off or as a debauch and “sinner”. Regardless of whether it lives up to the standards it sets for others, organisations such as the RSS demand a moral world-view in which the self must be sacrificed for the greater good of community and nation. (Some variants of Left-wing politics also assume a moral posture of asceticism and selflessness.)
The problem with such moral visions is their compulsive nature—one does not not just have to be morally righteous during an act or while making a decision, but in everything one does. You cannot be moral about a certain decision and then turn amoral or immoral when the context changes. Moral visions envelop everything about life; anything short of this is considered deeply immoral and socially suspect.
It is important to be moral in certain contexts, but as the philosopher Susan Wolf argues, it is not necessary to be a “moral saint”. For instance, she argues, some non-moral indulgences, such as playing around with children, need not be seen as immoral at all. Moral goodness, so to speak, is just one aspect of life.
It is important to note that “moral exemplars” such as Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Nelson Mandela appear intimate but also intimidating. Often, they unwittingly set a difficult example—that of the costs one may have to pay in order to live a moral life. They also can end up sending a signal that it is impossible for “lesser mortals” to emulate them; that one can follow in their footsteps in some contexts, but not replicate the deeper quality or nature of their lives.
The result is a pervasive sense of guilt and inward turning of the gaze. This in turn may lead to denial of all pleasure as immoral. One may end up viewing the ordinariness of life as nothingness. It is a different matter that while Gandhi harboured a deep sense of guilt about sex and pleasure, he celebrated the mundane act of plying the charkha. Similarly, Nelson Mandela’s heroic acts, his absolute sacrifice of the self, did not dissuade him from leading a life of retirement.
There is a pressing need to draw a healthy line between the personal pursuit of happiness and doing what is morally good. The former need not be reduced to visceral pleasure, just as the latter need not be compulsive. It is the blurring of the distinction between them that is at the heart of populist politics.
Populism seems to impose both—an notion of authenticity and a sense of guilt over having personal pursuits. All this goes in the name of nationalism and the collective good. Yet, ironically, while producing these discourses, populism does not prevent the justification of a narcissist leader. Instead, a leader’s self-love is turned into love for the nation. The leader’s good clothing, his stylish hairdo, the changes in his skin-tone, his food habits, and much more about him, all become part of the same moralistic politics. So, the line between being a “moral saint” and self-obsession is very thin.
Bertrand Russell argued that someone who gives up their social life to become a monk could, in fact, be deeply self-obsessed. Asceticism can be an act of self-obsession, which is written onto the routinised duties of a monk. Therefore, an ascetic’s life may not truly exemplify sacrifice or moral goodness. Meditating in caves or taking lonely walks may appear ascetic, as if it is driven by what is morally good, but it can also reduce every other way of living into nothingness. The result is that it can produce a collective moral confusion, chaos and emptiness.
The current populist politics are foregrounding this latent moral confusion of modern societies. Instead of offering a healthy alternative, they are gaining legitimacy by just highlighting the fact that everybody is party to the underlying moral crisis and confusion in society, and that we are going about our lives without resolving the crisis or reflecting on it. Populist politics gains legitimacy in raising these latent issues. They appear authentic by seeming to engage with these crises, but actually they sidestep the question of resolving them. “At least an attempt is being made, at least we have ‘saaf niyat’”, they respond when questioned on this front.
Given the extreme inequalities and grave injustices that exist in the world, it is necessary that we all become “moral saints”. Living beyond immediate self-interest is a rich way to experience life, but this way of life needs to go along with an amoral sense of happiness—one that exists in banter, gossip, fun, music, art, enjoyment, moments when critical thinking are suspended, and when simple-minded, mundane everyday acts take over. Ordinariness jolts populist demagogues, for they are incapable of making ordinary look not-stupid or trivial. They have a compulsive need to make things look heroic, or they cannot draw meaning from it. When things slide into calm and composure—as things had initially become during the lockdown—they begin to seem irrelevant. It is important to be ordinary without being mediocre. As Wolf argues, you can be “perfectly wonderful” without being “perfectly moral”.
Populist politics is attempting to institutionalise an idea of moral perfection. The National Education Policy (NEP) offers lessons on moral values, for instance. And while that is important, yet it can be argued that one need not be a pracharak who has no life beyond his chosen moralism. Else the pracharak would feel himself justified to impose his moralism on others, too.
And the collective would remain mute because it, too, values morality as an everyday ethic. As Wolf points out, it is only once society realises that there is much more to life outside morality, and that one need not feel guilty about it, and that it is in fact necessary for a good and happy life, that the excesses of populist politics would be more critically evaluated.
The author is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. The views are personal.