Delivered in a form of TEDx Talk at UPES, Dehradun
As a scientist, I tend to recognize patterns in the universe which are evident enough to be systematically analysed. Upon systematic analysis, I derive judgments on the basis of my observations and the work of my peers or other scientists before me.
From the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first-century, one can see patterns appearing in the behaviour of people around the globe. There is an evident but frightening rise of populism and fascism in the name of nationalism across nations led by Political Strongmen. The recent cases of the American presidential elections, Brexit, and the rise of Indian nationalist belligerence cannot be ignored. All of us are now following the French elections which could set the grounds for the future of the European Union.
Observing these patterns, one cannot overlook the tremendous rise of intolerance around the globe where some beliefs, however baseless and ignorant, are held with strong convictions and pitted against other public reasons. We see a clear overlay of propaganda beneath which lies the reality of society. The propaganda sought by these Strongmen is to create an image of problems requiring an immediate need for a public response (often violent in nature), which in reality contradicts and overshadows problems that are worth solving.
The errors one usually makes is to attribute some logic to the mass hysteria instigated by populists, a logic which it does not possess, or to see it as a logical end which is based on reason.
This kind of propaganda I argue has a common base- the publicity of an extraordinary optimism with an awfully pessimistic view of the current status of social construct, and the urgency to right every wrong that has been done in the past. This kind of despotism is established in an uncanny fashion, disguised as liberty, where powerful rhetoric muffles the thought of the public and causes mass values to shift constantly. For those of us who would like to believe that state led propaganda is a myth and therefore harmless, it would be useful to remember that it was the state led Nazi propaganda that ultimately led to the systematic annihilation of millions of Jews in the 1940s. It would also do us good to remember that state led propaganda that led to the post 9/11 wars has caused the deaths of more than 300,000 people since 2002 in Afghanistan and Iraq. The current Syrian immigrant crisis has been portrayed as a danger to the Western world through the use of created propaganda and hysteria.
Rhetoric created by regimes to fuel their own machinery can be incendiary and apocalyptic in the way it sways the media and the masses into believing blindly.
There is another pattern that I recognize- the Strongmen are fools as they should be and yet they are able to influence the masses. Their ability to influence derives from the betrayal of the public by the intellectuals. By aligning themselves with the establishment, the intellectuals have become beneficiaries and in turn have severely betrayed society. As a result of their conspicuous betrayal, we can see a shift in the world order which is becoming increasingly hungry for authoritarianism.
We have seen a rise of formidable egotists who are firm in their assertion to control the political lives of people of their country and crackdown domestic dissent and these intellectuals have become custodians of their populist agendas.
The reason why I assert that intellectuals have betrayed society is that, they have been the agents convincing masses using the authority of their voice and influence that society needs to act in response to a problem which is projected as worth solving.
Examples of such betrayers have been quite common in past few decades. Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington from the US have been frequently criticized for their pro-establishment stand. Traditional intellectuals like Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar for instance in India, with their pro-establishment approach have been quite evidently become the beneficiaries of the state, and in my opinion have betrayed the people who instil their faith in them. So has been the case of Dalits and Muslims in India, their thought leaders have betrayed them on several occasions for personal benefits which include several Ulemas and Ambedkar himself.
We are at a very dangerous edge as a civilization today. We have created an image of Barbarians and we perpetually wait for their arrival poised between fear and attack. But as Coetzee famously stated, in the end we have become the barbarians we fear. We have compromised humanity at the cost of a populist utopian vision and forgotten that our society is a harmony of separate notes. The prima facie question is- aren’t all utopias but impossible dreams or in our case, a nightmare?
We now ask ourselves why the intellectuals have betrayed society. A straightforward answer could be because it is comfortable and beneficial to be pro-establishment. It takes immense amount of courage to stand against popular belief with reasons that the masses refuse to acknowledge. The intellectuals of today and the past have made trysts with establishments in order to be on the safer sides whereas an absolute contrary stand was expected from them.
Who are these Intellectuals that I mention here? Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci divides intellectuals in two categories. Traditional intellectuals such as teachers, priests and bureaucrats who from generation to generation continue to perform the same function in society. The other intellectual, Gramsci argues is an Organic intellectual who is directly connected to the enterprise, engaged with the vital reality of society and are often used as minions of the establishment to organize interest and gain more power.
On the other side is Julian Benda’s intellectual who is a high and mighty philosopher king claiming that, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The third and more recent perspective is given by Palestine born American thinker Edward Said. Said’s intellectual is an outsider, an amateur and the disturber of the status quo. He continues to say that an intellectual is an unashamed and uncompromising secularist who speaks truth to power, to whom no worldly power is too big to be criticized.
The intellectual that I advocate here is not an individual but a class, not in the English sense of the word but the French Les Intellectuals which is a pluralistic term. Les Nouveau Intellectuals (The New Intellectual), I argue is not an individual who according to Said is an outsider but an insider who lives in the public sphere and speaks for the public in the public. The New Intellectual is a body of individuals questioning the status quo, raising concerns and voices of dissent and for whom ‘speaking out’ is of crucial importance. Les Nouveau Intellectuals should emerge as a new class in the social hegemony if we are to survive the modern age of populism, totalitarianism and fascism.
Pascal Ory & François Sirinelli have argued that the intellectual is no longer defined by what he is as a function or a status, but by what he does in his interventions in the public sphere. Ory & Sirinelli’s argument also stands for the class of intellectual I mention in this essay. This new class should emerge out of the immense underutilized human potential spread across the globe comprising of people who are not afraid of asking unconformable and often embarrassing questions for the benefit of a larger purpose.
For such intellectuals, boundaries and nations are not geographical and they are humanists first under any state of dilemma. They should bear witness to their will to transcend their opinions. Les Nouveau Intellectuals is to me an act of revenge, a measure of overcoming fate as Camus puts it, by imposing a form upon it. This kind of rebellion doesn’t require demonstration but a public dialogue which is sustainable in its very essence and is a necessary condition for this class to prosper.
It is upon the youth to take the baton, rather snatch it from the betrayers and steady the cradle of human civilization by overcoming the times of moral crisis in which we live. It is up to the youth, Les Nouveau Intellectuals, to become custodians of liberal thought and freedom, of equality and most importantly and above all- humanity.
The world is at a crossroad and it is impossible to avoid the truth at this crossroad. We have to walk out of the comforts which insulate us form harsh realities. We have to let that quotidian slip away and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. This is the function Les Nouveau Intellectuals should perform in the society.
This, I believe, is the greatest hinge period in the history of humanity where we have unprecedented power and means to create a public voice and we will be judged by how we handle ourselves in this time.
I should also warn Les Nouveau Intellectuals that sooner or later, they will also find themselves at a crossroad where the choice would either be to succumb to the enemy’s satisfaction and change themselves and become hate filled, illiberal half-brothers of the populists or to become guardians of the contemporary world, to go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice.
These times will not only shape what would become of the Les Nouveau Intellectuals but will also test their mettle.
The Italian medieval poet, Dante has warned us that the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. The choice between heaven and hell is entirely up to us.