Wednesday, 18 May 2016

On The Uncivil Totalitarian Ideas Of ‘The Civil Society’

Children of Road Workers
Arundhati Roy, a Civil Society socialite, has written an article in which the phrase ‘Gandhians with guns’ is used in context of the Naxalites. She uses the term ‘Gandhians’ for them despite the fact that thousands of Indians have lost their lives in Naxalite related violence during the last 20 years. The Naxalites are responsible not only for the wanton destruction of life and property, but also for hindering development activity in the areas that they control.

The Civil Society pulpit, from which the likes of Arundhati Roy pontificate, is like an Orwellian Animal Farm, where everyone is supposedly equal but the totalitarian left is more equal than the others. The Civil Society intellectuals claim that they want people to live in peace and harmony, yet they provide intellectual, moral and political support to the Naxalite groups, whose political goal is to establish a Maoist-style communist dictatorship in the country.

The paradox about Civil Society intellectuals is that their ideas have seldom helped the marginalized people on whose behalf they claim to be working:

1) Civil Society activists claim that they provide financial support to needy people, but many of these activists are guilty of financial improprieties. Teesta Setalvad, who is often described as a Civil Society member, has allegedly misused the funds that her nongovernmental organization (NGO) collected for providing relief to the Gujarat riot victims. Another high-profile NGO, Greenpeace India, has been accused by the government of violating the rules of foreign funding and withholding information on transactions.

2) Civil Society activists claim that their ideas are based on scientific evidence, but they use pseudoscientific agitprop to oppose genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, leads several NGOs that are engaged in protesting against GMOs like Bt cotton, although Bt cotton is resistant to bollworm and leads to a dramatically increased cotton yield. Many developed countries have been using Bt cotton for decades without any adverse effect. But Vandana Shiva claims that growing Bt cotton in India will lead to genocide. Due to her efforts, Indian farmers were banned from using Bt cotton seeds for many years.

3) Civil Society activists claim that they favor development, but they try to scuttle every major infrastructure project. Megha Patekar, the star Civll Society activist, is chief of the NGO called Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which is famous for organizing vitriolic campaigns against the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. Started in 1979 with the idea of increasing water availability to drought-prone areas, improving irrigation and producing hydroelectricity for millions of people, the Sardar Sarovar Dam project continues to be held up. Arundhati Roy was associated with the NBA in the past. She has written several emotional articles, which make use of distorted data, to show that the Sardar Sarovar Dam is bad for the environment and the people.

4) Civil Society activists claim that they are the liberal voice of India. They claim to represent the interests of the poor. However, you will never find landless laborers or displaced people participating in Civil Society deliberations. Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi says that some of the NGOs are working for the Naxalites and spreading intellectual pollution in the country. He accuses the NGOs of showing no concern for the village poor in whose name they collect millions in donations.

An important aspect of the rise of Civil Society activism in India is the proliferation of NGOs. According to a survey done by the Central Bureau of Investigation, India has around 3.1 million NGOs, which means that there is one NGO for every 600 Indians. The number of NGOs in the country is many times the number of primary schools and primary health centers. NGO leaders are part of the Civil Society bandwagon, which also includes human rights activists, academics, high-profile journalists, celebrities and representatives of left-leaning think tanks.

The Civil Society is a coalition of the totalitarian left. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many leftist intellectuals realized that communism was now thoroughly discredited and a communist regime may never come to power in most countries. To retain their grip on power, the communists developed the idea of the Civil Society. They claimed that it would serve as the public space between the state, the market and the ordinary household, in which people could debate and develop ideas for action.

The Civil Society is a collectivist concept. Its sole purpose is to transfer power from individuals and businessmen to intellectuals and certain leftist groups. Civil Society intellectuals have no direct stake in the government or the markets, so they can’t be blamed when the implementation of their ideas results in devastating consequences for millions of people. These intellectuals enjoy power without responsibility.

If you are in favor of modernity, urbanization, better law and order, industrial development and free markets, the elites of the Civil Society will dub you barbarian, despotic and premodern. They believe that they are smarter than others. They believe that their left-wing ideology makes them equipped to reach the truth. Even though they are far less rational than the average man on the street, they have a high opinion of their intellectualism.

The leftist intellectuals who have branded themselves as the Civil Society dwell in a make-believe world. They portray themselves as well meaning idealists, but in reality they are the agents of irrationalism, totalitarianism, disinformation, poverty, hopelessness and violence. The flaws in their ideas do not get exposed because powerful interests in the mainstream media and academia are part of the Civil Society setup. But now there are indications that the Civil Society’s monopoly on intellectual discourse in the country may be ending.

With the rise of social media platforms and web-based publishing, India’s intellectual center of gravity is shifting away from the mainstream media and academia. On the Internet, there is now a lot of support for free markets and industrial development. Many Indians have now begun to understand that millions of people in the country will remain trapped in poverty if we do not reject Civil Society intellectuals, whose bread and butter comes from propagating false ideas, opposing development and supporting terror groups such as the Naxalites.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

On Postmodernist Bullying: If You Don’t Like Kafka, You Are a Philistine

Google doodle on July 3, 2013
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

~ These are the opening lines of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

On July 3, 2013, the 130th birthday of Franz Kafka, there was a Google doodle to celebrate Kafka’s book, The Metamorphosis. The doodle shows a man-sized cockroach stepping out of a door, clutching a briefcase in one of its six hands — maybe one of its six legs, which is what any cockroach would have.

The man-sized cockroach depicted in the Google doodle was inspired by Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis. The story opens with a scene that shows Samsa waking up one morning to find himself transformed into an insect. Kafka doesn't provide any reasons for the bizarre transformation. The whys and the hows are of no concern to Kafka.

In the first line of the story we are informed that Samsa is now a horrible insect and the next few lines describe his new insect body. Then the story hurtles onward to dwell on Samsa’s thoughts. Samsa frets about being late for work. He agonizes over the callous and unforgiving nature of his boss. He worries about losing his job and his life crumbling around him. Surely anyone who faced Samsa’s predicament would have much more to worry about.

Kafka’s abhorrence of capitalism is the reason behind Samsa's bizarre characterization. The accounts of many of Kafka’s contemporaries show that Kafka was a strident supporter of anarchism, libertarian socialism, and anarcho-syndicalism.

In The Metamorphosis, Kafka attempted to show that for a workingman it is impossible to get over the feelings of capitalist subservience. Even when someone is transformed into a cockroach, he will, like Samsa, prefer to fret about issues such as his job. Kafka blames capitalism for Samsa’s ordeal. He believed that capitalism turns people into vermin.

As the story progresses, Samsa becomes comfortable with his cockroach body. He begins to enjoy his insect-like skills, which allow him to scale walls and walk on the ceiling. But his family disowns him — his sister tells him that he has become a burden to them. His father hits him with, of all things, an apple. There is no allusion to the apple of knowledge in the primordial Garden of Eden; it seems that it is just an ordinary apple. Finally, Samsa crawls back to his room and willingly dies.

There is no logic, no artistic quality, and no moral in The Metamorphosis, and yet this story was enshrined in a Google doodle.

Kafka’s other stories are also built around anti-capitalist motifs and are quite absurd. The absurdity of Kafka reaches an entirely new level in his diaries, which consist of a series of random sentences that do not connect with each other. The diaries, which run to 450 pages, are completely meaningless. No one has ever found what Kafka wanted to convey through the random sentences that he jotted in those pages.

Here is an excerpt from a conversation that I recently had with a Kafka devotee:

“The diaries of Franz Kafka are really deep. They are beyond the powers of comprehension of ordinary people. You need a deep literary sense to read Kafka’s diaries.” 

“Were you able to make sense of Kafka’s diaries?” I asked. 

“It is not easy to discover the meaning of Kafka’s diaries. This is because there is a nuanced meaning in each line that he has written. You must spend hours contemplating every line that Kafka has written in order appreciate the depth of his thought.” 

“After hours of contemplation you managed to find the meaning?” I persisted. 

“You see, it is not for finding the meaning that you read Kafka’s diaries. You read Kafka because meanings are meaningless, life is absurd and truth does not exist. A sentence can have multiple meanings, some of which can be unknown even to the author.”

A literature whose leitmotif is to portray the idea that meanings are meaningless, life is absurd and truth does not exist is an absurdity, and it is surprising that Kafka devotees regard such literature as deep. They smugly state that they can’t find any meaning in Kafka’s dairies and accept that even Kafka may not have known what he was writing. Yet they like the diaries anyway. If you can’t find any meaning, then what are you liking?

Kafka’s works were published in the early part of the 20th century, but he became popular only in the post-World War II period. That’s when the philosophical movement known as existentialism arose, led by Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. Existentialists advocate nihilistic ideas. They believe that the world has no identity, consciousness is a kind of nothingness, and absurdity is the quintessence of the human condition. There is lot of common ground between Kafka and the existentialist writers, and it is believed that Camus was inspired by Kafka.

The reign of existentialism ended by the late 1960s, when this ideology became so discredited that leftists with a long record of being existentialists started rejecting that label. Instead, they began calling themselves postmodernists. Postmodernism was led by the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty and few others. With respect to literature, there is hardly any difference between the philosophy of the postmodernists and the existentialists.

In the era of postmodernism, which continues to this day, Kafka’s literature received unprecedented hype. This is because promoting skepticism and relativism in art and culture is a key goal for the postmodernists. They believe that the purpose of literature is to express ideas of nothingness, meaninglessness and ambiguity. They dismiss as naive realism, the idea that reality is independent of consciousness. They believe that reality is a conceptual construct and there is no such thing as truth. They reject reason and logic.

George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, said: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” By hailing Kafka and his ilk as great writers, the postmodernists and the existentialists have corrupted language and they have corrupted thought. With thought corrupted, people can’t tell good political ideas from bad ones. That way it’s easier for intellectuals to get their political ideas accepted, even though the ideas are based on false premises.

The postmodernist agenda of destroying politics by corrupting literature has succeeded. It has created political confusion and made the rise of progressivism and leftism possible.

In Kafka’s literature (if you insist on calling it literature) there is no merit. The existentialists and the postmodernists are the main culprits behind Kafka’s literary fame. The absurdity that we find in his writing is an expression of the essential absurdity of existentialism and postmodernism.

This article was also published in Savvy Street with some changes.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Book Review: Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

Intellectuals and Society
By Thomas Sowell
Basic Books

When things go wrong politicians face flak, even though the intellectuals exercise a much deeper influence on national and international affairs. In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell describes the different forms of the symbiotic relationship that exists between the intellectuals and the politicians. The intellectuals and politicians work together because their goals are closely aligned; they aim to increase the size of the government and take the decision-making powers away from private individuals and organizations.

The ideas proposed by the intellectuals get propagated by a wide array of journalists, artists, teachers, bloggers, politicians, judges, activists and other members of the intelligentsia. “The power of the intelligentsia is demonstrated not only by their ability to create a general climate of opinion that strikes fear into those who oppose their agenda but also by their ability to create a climate of opinion which richly rewards those political leaders whose decisions are consonant with the vision of the intelligentsia,” writes Sowell.

As the intellectuals deal in ideas, they are seldom blamed when the actual implementation of their ideas results in devastating consequences for millions of people. Sowell points out that we seldom apply to the intellectual class the exacting external standards by which we judge the ideas of the engineers, doctors, bankers and other professionals, who in their line of work deal with concrete things. The ideas of the intellectuals are evaluated on the basis of the merits or demerits that other intellectuals see in those ideas. Sowell says that the evaluation is non-empirical and illogical.

“The very terms of admiration or dismissal among intellectuals reflect the non-empirical criteria involved. Ideas that are 'complex,' 'exciting,' 'innovative,' 'nuanced,' or 'progressive' are admired, while other ideas are dismissed as 'simplistic,' 'outmoded,' or 'reactionary.'"

Sowell finds it difficult to think of any benefit that the intellectuals have conferred on anyone outside their own circles. In the final chapter, Sowell bluntly asks: “What have the intellectuals actually done for society—and at what cost?”

The problem with Intellectuals and Society is that it is a tirade against the liberal and progressive intellectuals—it does not inform the readers about what must be done to bring improvement in the intellectual environment. A tirade, howsoever justified, is not a solution. The entire book seems to project the idea that the intellectual class as a whole is completely worthless. But this is not true—the leftists and the progressives are not the only intellectuals.

There are in the world intellectuals with a better vision. John Locke’s political principles led to the founding of America. Ideas of intellectuals like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and many others also played a decisive role.

Sowell has made a tepid acknowledgement that not all intellectuals are bad and that intellectuals with differing visions exist in society. But this acknowledgement is a description of the existing state of affairs; it is not a blueprint for improving the intellectual environment. In the Part III of the book, Sowell explains his theory for dividing the modern intellectuals into two broad categories—those with 'Vision of the Anointed Elite,’ and those with the 'Constrained or Tragic Vision.'

Many contemporary intellectuals think of themselves as an anointed elite, or people with a mission to lead others in one way or other towards better lives. They think that only they have the insight and the knowledge to guide others in developing a better way of life. The second kind of vision that Sowell describes, the constrained, or the tragic vision, regards civilization as something that requires great and constant effort merely to be preserved. Those with the tragic vision believe that the world cannot be made a better place by merely changing the institutions, by compassion, or by commitment to leftist or progressive ideas.

The categorizing of intellectuals on the basis of different kinds of social visions is fine, but Sowell leaves far too many questions unanswered. For instance, he doesn't analyze what is the root cause of any type of intellectual vision.  Sowell writes: “When a story fits the vision, people in the media do not always find it necessary to check whether it also fits the facts.” But why do such intellectuals enjoy disproportionate influence on the media and on the consumers of the media?

Sowell does not say anything about the philosophy that forms the basis for the ideas that the intellectuals propagate. From the early 19th-century, vast majority of American intellectuals were the followers of European philosophy which was dominated by the ideas of the likes of Immanuel Kant and David Hume. John Dewey, who is rightly criticized by Sowell for propagating ideas that have led to disastrous consequences in education, was a follower of both Kant and Hume. Kant and Hume are philosophical godfathers of leftism, and also liberalism and progressivism.

The only major philosopher to merit a mention in Sowell’s book is David Hume—Hume’s name comes up in context of the role that he played in urging his fellow eighteenth-century Scots to master English. The book has no mention of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke—the three philosophers whose ideas have played a seminal role in the development of the Western civilization. Most of the contemporary intellectuals are anti-capitalism because they have rejected Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, and accepted Kant and Hume.

Sowell is an intellectual—he is an intellectual with the right philosophical ideas. If his terminology for describing the intellectuals were to be applied to him, then he would be regarded as an intellectual with tragic or constrained vision. Why is he losing the argument against the intellectuals with the anointed vision? Why are the tragic vision intellectuals unable to find support for their social, economic and political ideas? Sowell has not answered these crucial questions.

Intellectuals and Society is full of quotable lines, as any book by Sowell is bound to be, and it presents lot of useful ideas in a clear and colourful language. But in my view there is very little scope for the book to make any improvement in the state of affairs, because it does not go beyond criticizing the leftist and liberal intellectuals. It does not offer any solutions. An intellectual renaissance can happen only when there is a revival of the philosophy of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke. But Sowell has not spoken about the importance of good philosophy.