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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 5, New Delhi, January 16, 2021

Capitol Hill Violence: The darkness of democracy | Jyoti Dalal

Friday 15 January 2021

by Jyoti Dalal *

Events of Capitol Hill are indicative of the larger darkness that is ready to engulf modern democracies. Located within democracy, this darkness cannot just be expunged. 

The takeover of the Capitol Hill, regardless of what is it called — coup, carnage, riot, protests — provides an opportune moment to reflect on deep seated anxieties of contemporary times. The specificity of this event reflects the inert and dead nature that plagues most of the existing modern, liberal democracies calling for an informed understanding with a sense of urgency. Our shock and repugnance towards it might be understandable, but it takes us away from unravelling the multiple layers in which it lies encapsulated. Moreover, our revulsive attitude if on the one hand reflect our naivete for not seeing this coming, on the other hand it also dissimulates and further perpetuates the darkness and the contradiction that is located within modern, liberal democracies.

At one level, this event signals the regressive politics of our times that rests on invoking majoritarian forces through resentments and victimization. Politics of the contemporary has degenerated to the point that the imagination and creation of an enemy is constantly required for it to function. The norm has become to live by struggling against this enemy threat through combat. With this, the sheer possibility of this pandemonium is the result of the larger and an ongoing decay of the public institutions. A well-functioning democracy needs the pillars of its robust public institutions. The decay of executive, judiciary, media, universities and other such institutions become consequential for the stagnation and regression of democracy that we can see.

At a more complicated level, the present event cannot be dismissed as an aberration to liberal, modern democracies. Viewing it as antithetical to democracy pays attention to its visible side only that heralds the values of freedom, peace and welfare. Achille Mbembe calls it the solar body of democracy which hides its other side, i.e. the nocturnal body where lies all its darkness. The veneer of great liberal ideas of democracies shrouds the extreme forms of violence that borders it — as can be seen through the presence of camps and prisons where expendables are subjected to inhuman degrees of violence, public lynching of minorities or in the ruthless treatment meted out to refugees. The present politics that relies on inventing this enemy and pushing them to camps, prisons or back to the sea in the case of refugees indicate this nocturnal face of democracy. This other nocturnal side of democracy is located within modern democracies.

This darkness and the contradiction should not be a reason for departing from democracy and giving up on it. Instead our commitment to democracy is dependent on how much we can engage with this dark side. Our diffident attitude to look at this gory side of democracy would only regress it further. Such an attitude fuses us with forces that made it possible at the first place. After all, papering over this contradiction will not make it disappear but will only increase its force.

Bernard Stiegler’s usage of the word pharmakon becomes important here. Holding the contradiction within it, pharmakon is poison as well as cure. When cared for, it provides the opening for the emergence of creative and curative dimension; when abandoned it would decay as its toxicity would take over. The distinctive feature of pharmakon doesn’t lie in juxtaposing two contradictory aspects, but arises from the possibility of its healing and progressive facet to arise from its poisonous side that is the seat of all darkness. For Stiegler, attending to pharmakon means taking responsibility of and working with the darkness.

Democracy too is calling for the same care and attention. Taking responsibility of the democracy means engaging with this darkness instead of being diffident towards it. Abandoning this darkness will increase its force and power in unchallenged ways. Contemporary times are already indicative of the colossal damage that we have caused to our democracies by taking it for granted, and by not investing in them. Democracy doesn’t work on its own, and it calls for constant work. Strength of a democracy rests on its capacity to engage with its nocturnal face. Blocking it appears convenient and probably logical too, but it incites the forces that can hollow out democracy, as we can see in the times we are living through. The challenging question for us is — how do we attend to its contradiction and darkness so that the space for creativity, critical thinking, autonomy and creation of knowledges and skills can also arise. Afterall, humanity’s best insights and illuminations have emerged from its darkness.

(* Author: Jyoti Dalal is Asstt Professor, Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi and is General Secretary, Comparative Education Society of India (CESI) )

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