Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2019 > The Future of Dissent in the Anthropocene

Mainstream, VOL LVII No 15 New Delhi March 30, 2019

The Future of Dissent in the Anthropocene

Sunday 31 March 2019


by Upendra Baxi

The following is the text of the Second Rabi Ray Memorial Lecture. Professor Upendra Baxi was to have delivered the lecture but due to his indisposition which prevented him from attending the memorial meeting in New Delhi, it was read out by Professor Manoranjan Mohanty at the meeting on March 6, 2019.

May I begin by warmly thanking Professor (Dr) Manoranjan Mohanty, the Rabi Ray Memorial Committee and Lohia Academy for their kind invitation to deliver this address commemorating the second death anniversary of lamented Shri Rabi Ray? I congratulate Manu Mohanty and his friends for constructing this pedestal of pubic memory because I believe in one of the few unscripted human rights: the respect for the human rights of those who are not with us. I go a step further in saying that the act of respect for the human rights of the dead is a pre-condition for the respect of the human rights of those living.

Our capacity for such respect provides one precious indicator of a good society. Desecration of their memory is the worst violation of the human rights of the dead and this denial may lead to the massacre of the ancestors and even of the habits, and styles of assassination of memory and history. Rabi Ray, whom I had a fleeting privilege of meeting, was no believer in ancestor-worship but he would have regarded the practice of massacre of ancestors a public vice in a constitutional democracy rather than a badge of freedom of speech and expression.

Rabi Ray had a proper appreciation of the importance of democratic institutions. As Manoranjan Mohanty recalls, he was “a people’s leader who never lobbied for power”.1 And, as Prafulla Samantara vividly recalls, Rabi Ray scoffed at the suggestion that would devalue the office of the Speaker (which even for a short while) he adorned with grace and distinction by not even considering the offer of Governor-ship of a State.2

There are many inspiring ways of remem-bering Rabi Ray: as a Lohian socialist thinker, political leader, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, unflinching advocate of gender equality, a champion of the rights of the landless peasants, a reflexive nationalist, and as an Oriya who was (to use an old Onida TV advertisement by-line) a ‘neighbour’s envy and owner’s pride’. I here recall him by six virtues, which we can do well to imbibe: civility, humility, dignity, discipline, tolerance and love for constitutional freedoms. These virtues are inter-related. These should be democratic virtues of all citizens but instead of being routine these are rare. And to remember Rabi Ray is to engage in a revolu-tionary but non-violent call for these civic virtues to be widespread. What is more, these virtues animate the very list of fundamental duties of citizens in a small but overwhelmingly important Part IV-A of the Constitution of India.

We learn from Rabi Ray’s legendary public life that civility need not be an adversary of competitive liberal democracy; in fact, it is the mark of erudition that respects the dignity of the other, a marker of the state of civilisation. Not in vain did we at Delhi University (and I believe that it is a near-universal formula of Indian Universities) charge every awardee of a degree with the solemn commandment: ‘Be thou worthy in conversation and conduct of this degree.’

Love for constitutional freedoms is not an enemy of discipline, as we learnt from the historical decision by Speaker Rabi Ray inter-preting the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution disqualifying six members from the Lok Sabha, or the setting up of a committee of enquiry for the removal of Justice Ramwaswamy, a Supreme Court Justice; nor does discipline forbid facili-tation of freedom (as displayed in the intro-duction of a zero hour in the Lok Sabha). Love for constitutional freedoms is not affected (as Basudeb Sahoo puts it in a tribute) by ’fear-lessness in a soft heart’.3

His inaugural decision on disqualification of members of the Lok Sabha is accompanied by emphasis on the freedom to dissent. Speaker Rabi Ray characterised ‘freedom of dissent as ... an essential ingredient’ but it ‘should be open and honest’. Further, honest dissent must be ‘not even remotely motivated by self-aggran-disement’. Recalling Mahatma Gandhi, Rabi Ray said that an act of honest dissent must ‘voice innermost convictions’ and not merely ‘voice a convenient party cry’. And acts of self-serving dissent where ‘greed for political power overtake national interest and the interest of the people’ are (if I may add) not expressions of responsible freedom but merely licentious and flirtatious misappropriation of the spirit of constitutiona-lism.4


My theme is somewhat unusual but I believe Rabi Ray would have appreciated it. I wish to talk about the future of dissent in the Anthro-pocene. The Anthropocene signals the narrative of continuing anthropogenic harm manifest in common experience as global warming and climate change but signifies wider changes in the planetary system.5 Although the Inter-national Stratigraphical Commission has still to endorse the claim that we have exited the age of Holocene (which lasted about 12,000 years) and entered the human age (Anthropocene),6 there is sufficient threshold evidence that humankind has entered the era of anthropogenic harm.7 Ninetyseven per cent of the world’s scientists have agreed on this notion,8 though residual disagreement concerns: (a) the mapping, models, and measurement of the change; (b) the dating of the period (advent of agriculture, spread of Industrial Revolution, nuclear weapons prolife-ration that begun with the explosion at Hiro-shima and Nagasaki; (c) the exact numbers of climate displacement refugees; and (d) precise impacts of the methods of geoengineering geared to arrest future anthro-pogenic harm. There are disagreements as to the measurement, methods, and models predicting levels of harm and effect, not about the reality of anthropogenic harm. In my view, using this dissensus to deny the reality of harm is an extreme form of necrophilic climate change/global warming denialism as well as constitutes the denial of all human rights to a legitimate aspiration for green futures.

The future of the right to public dissent seems bleak in Anthropocene futures for another set of reasons identified as climate change authoritarianism. The term has at least three different meanings. The first refers to how concern with climate change may reinforce the already existing tendencies and patterns of authoritarian leadership, generally known as ‘authoritarian environmentalism’; thus, for example, one discusses the Chinese case in terms of authoritarian environmentalism articulated first by Robert Heilbronner who believed that the essential markers were “an absence of inhibitions with respect to the exercise of power” and “limits on the freedom of speech would be needed to control population growth”.9 Or, one may describe this in terms having two dimensions: a “decrease in individual liberty” that “compels them to obey more sustainable policies” and a process that is dominated by a by central state, affording little or no room for social action.10 Bruce Gilley concludes his China study by observations valid for all cases of authoritarian environmentalism:

Authoritarian environmentalism’s merits are its ability to produce a rapid, centralised response to severe environmental threats, and to mobilise state and social actors. However, where state actors are fragmented, the aims of ‘ecoelites’ can easily be undermined at the implementation stage. Moreover, the exclusion of social actors and representatives creates a malign lock-in effect in which low social concern makes authoritarian approaches both more necessary and more difficult.11

It is also possible to view authoritarian environmentalism as an exercise of biopower, as a marker of new insignia for sovereignty, and as a mechanism of surveillance state but we defer analysis for a later date, save saying that howsoever analysed the space for dissent shrinks rapidly and even irrevocably.

The second meaning emerged at last two decades before Donald Trump emerged on the scene as the Denier-in-Chief;12 deniers take one of the many positions—“those who reject all evidence of global warming; those who believe human activities are not causing global warming; those who accept the reality of global warming but claim that its impacts will be minor, if not beneficial; and those who question the economic and political measures proposed to deal with... Often, deniers hold a mix of these beliefs.” President Trump, and his Twitter Archives, are replete with all this and what seems to be added are aspects integral to neoliberalism.

The third approach refers to a ‘dilemma’; Richard Falk thus draws our attention to the problem of “short-termism”.13 It is true that limited terms of constitutional offices are regarded as an essential aspect of limited government and rule of law. It also facilitates a democratic circulation of constitutional and ruling elites and fosters interparty as well as governmental free competition. In other words, short-termism is regarded as democratic and republican virtue.

However, reversal of anthropogenic harm entails rather long-term diagnosis and pres-cription of bitter medicine. It requires a deter-mined leadership pursuit of several multilevel governmental policy commitments. And longer and stable political leadership is necessary to monitor, and to further develop, international polices concerning mitigation, adaptation, and climate refugees. Justifications for state coercion to alter social life-styles and economic production methods from carbon to post-carbon economies constantly trespass liberal, communi-tarian, and civic republican principles. But there is assurance that such constitutional or extra- constitutional arrangement will necessarily serve the ends of climate leadership in median or the long run. How much of this coercion menaces the idea and practice of human rights, and particularly the right to dissent?


I must conclude perforce by flagging off very briefly and broadly two themes: the fear of freedom and freedom and oppression. Taking the second theme first, most generally the problem is why (under what conditions) the oppressed or the dominated (although there is a difference because not all persons or groups who are dominated may not be oppressed but we let that pass here) consent to their unfreedom.

They may agree to their present conditions of oppression for several reasons of genuinely true or false moral beliefs, They may as individuals entertain a truly held justifiable belief that people similarly situated have limited capacity for altruism and therefore each individual will attempt liberation of self (exit from an oppressive situation) and attempts at coalitions for exit will entail high individual and group costs, The

problem of collective unfreedom (oppression) has been conceptualised in many ways. The problem may be presented by a situation in which while each individual has a free choice, but the resultant situation is that the group or collectivity as a whole does not have the conditions to exercise a free choice. Professor Gerald Cohen illustrated collective unfreedom by a paradigm of closed-door problem, where ten individuals are locked in a room and anyone has the freedom to leave but under a condition that available exits for the remaining nine persons close.14 The structure of proletarian unfreedom is illustrated this way by contrasting the situation of no exit for the rest of the group but entailing some free choice on the part of an individual member. Martha Nussbaum attempted to explain the problem of unfreedom of women as a group with reference to the notion of ‘adaptive preferences’, where women as a whole learn to prefer collective unfreedom by adopting preferences which lighten their lived burdens and soften the intensity of their own exploitation as a group.15 The problem is sought to be solved by appeals to a “state of preventedness” which arises out of a lack of social cooperation by “others who are unwilling to so act” and this ‘unwillingness’ primarily arises out of social and economic interest.16 It would seem that we may understand freedom only when we grasp the reasons why oppression is sustained and why the oppressed people fail or are unwilling to pay the costs of forming non-violent coalitions for freedom.

At the moment, freedom of speech and expression does carry with it the power to legislate reasonable restrictions by law made by the Parliament of India The supreme legislative power consists not in abrogation of free speech but its restrictions which are considered ’reasonable’ . The ultimate power to adjudge this vests in the Supreme Court of India and, as is well known, the test yields different results in different settings of legisprudence, important for practice the contest over this power is, the power in Parliament is truly vast. The intervention of the Indian judiciary, as we know, is normatively precious but it has debatably sustained many a restriction as reasonable and rejected the American doctrine of “preferred freedoms”. And crucially the right to free speech and expression does not carry a corresponding duty or an obligation to listen. How does then one ever transform the freedom of speech and expression into a right coupled with a duty to be listened to by those who rule?

This leads us to the first concern: fear of freedom itself. We here need to recall the much forgotten work of Erich Fromm, entitled Escape from Freedom:17 he there (and his subsequent works) developed an elaborate schema of social character, as a repository within individual self of the social structural attributes describing the “average family” as the “psychic agency’ of society” where “the child acquires character which makes him want to do what he has to do and the core of which he shares with most

members of the same social class or culture”.18 Depending on the nature and attributes of response to political power, Fromm developed three types of social character: the ’authori-tarian’, the ‘market’,19 and the ‘necrophilous’20 character. It is in authoritarian character that we find most manifest the fear of freedom. On the one hand, it would be natural for feelings of “resentment or hostility” to “arise against the exploiter, subordination to whom is against one’s own interests” but often, on the other hand, “as in the case of a slave, this hatred would only lead to conflicts which would subject the slave to suffering without a chance of winning”. Therefore, “the tendency will usually be to repress the feeling of hatred and sometimes even to replace it by a feeling of blind admiration”; this serves “two functions: (1) to remove the painful and dangerous feeling of hatred, and (2) to soften the feeling of humiliation”.21

Fromm’s remarkable conclusion was that the authoritarian character begins to love the very conditions as willed by fate that remains courageous in the acts of suffering submission to the authority. It is this suffering submission to authority which is the obverse of the freedom to dissent. From Fromm we learn many things22 but the most crucial is the escape from freedom which consists in renouncing (in self) and denouncing dissent (in others). This generalised fear—the fear of fear itself—is writ large in nearly the first two decades of the 21st century of neoliberal and hyperglobalsing societies. What may be left of the future of dissent should interest us all. Rabi Ray, who expressed constitutional and moral anxieties about dishonest dissent, had he been with us today, would have been among the foremost Gandhian socialists to vigorously lead a public debate. We may do no better than to emulate him.


1. Rabi Ray: Reminiscences, at 99-105 (Bhubaneswar, Lohia Academy, 2015, being tributes on the occasion of Rabi Ray’s 90th Birth Anniversary).

2. Id., at 125-26.

3. Id., at 26.

4. C.K. Jain reproduces the text of the ruling in his warm tribute: see, Note 1 at 61-62.

5. See, Colin N. Waters, Jan A. Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Michael A. Ellis and Andrea M. Snelling, “A stratigraphically basis for the Anthropocene?”, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395, 1—21(2014); first published online March 24, 2014, The Geolo-gical Society of London, 2014.

6. Paul J .Crutzen, ”Geology of Mankind”, Nature, 415, 23 (2002); Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, ‘Anthropocene’, Global Change Newsletter, 41, 17-18 (2000).

7. Such as draughts, desertification, deforestation, rising sea levels, some meltdown of the Arctic glaciers, extreme weather changes, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of spices, and demographic explosion.

8. The era of human-made harm (global warming and climate change plus) is now well-accepted by all, except some strange unscientific leaders and political actors who still persist in sheer climate change denialism. No doubt, they aggravate real harm to humans, all other species, and the planet. On the 25th anniversary of their first ‘Warning to Humanity’, more than 15,000 world scientists issued a second warning, summoning urgent action towards and urging that ‘great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided’. They pleaded for the stabilisation of the world population, the substantial reduction of greenhouse gases emissions, the phasing out of fossil fuel, the diminishment of deforestation, and to resist the destruction of biodiversity. See, William J. Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Mauro Galetti, Thomas M Newsome, Mohammed Alamgir, Eileen Crist, Mahmoud I. Mahmoud, William F. Laurance, ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice’ (Manuscript in-press with BioScience). The Second Warning calls for a thirteen-point agenda of ‘sustainability transitions’.

9. Robert Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, 38 (1974).

10. Mark Beeson. “The Coming of Environmental Authoritarianism”, Environmental Politics, 19: 2, 276-294, (2010),

11. Bruce Gilley, “Authoritarian Environmentalism and China’s Response to Climate Change”, Environmental Politics 21: 2, 287-307(2012).

12. See, Kari De Pryck • Francois Gemenne, “The Denier-in-Chief: Climate Change, Science, and the Election of Donald J. Trump”, Law and Critique, DOI 10.1007/s10978-017-9207-6

13. Richard Falk, Manoranjan Mohanty, Victor Faessel (ed.), Exploring Emergent Thresholds: Towards 2030 (Delhi, Orient Blackswan, 2017).

13. See, Gerald A Cohen, “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 12:1, 3-33 1983).

14. See, Gerald A Cohen, “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 12:1. 3-33 (1983). See also the version of a second closed door experiment, Ian Carter, A Measure of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

15. Martha C. Nussbaum, Women and Human Develop-ment: The Capabilities Approach (The Seeley Lectures, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001). See also Andrew Mason, “Worker’s Unfreedom and Women’s Unfreedom: Is there A Significant Analogy?, Political Studies 44:1: 75-87(1996).

16. See, Claire Grant, “Freedom and Oppression”, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 12:4, 413-425 (2013).

17. See, Fromm, E., Escape from Freedom (New York: Avon Books, 1994; original work dated 1941).

18. Id., at 60.

19. Eric Fromm, Man for Himself (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Premier Books, 1990; original work published in 1947): he there described the marketing character memorably: “since modern man experiences himself as the seller and the commodity to be sold on the market, his self-esteem depends on conditions beyond his control. If he is ‘successful’, he is a valuable: if he is not, he is worthless. The degree of insecurity which results from this orientation can hardly be overestimated. If one feels that one’s value is not constituted primarily by the human qualities one possesses, but by one’s success on a competitive market with ever-changing conditions, one’s self- esteem is bound to be shaky and in constant need of confirmation by others. Hence one is driven to strive relentlessly for success, and any setback is a severe threat to one’s self-esteem; helplessness, insecurity, and inferiority feelings are the result. If the vicissitudes of the market are the judges of one’s value, the sense of dignity and pride is destroyed” (at 72).

20. Eric Fromm, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil (New York: Harper and Row.1964).

21. Supra Note 18 at 96.

22. See, for example, Raymond B. Pacquing, “The Philosophical Anthropology of Eric Fromm: The Conscious and the Unconscious in Man”, 2014.pdf; Rainer Funk, Erich Fromm: The Courage to be Human (New York: Continuum, 1982) Daniel Burston, The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). I do not complicate this discussion by reference to Jacques Lacan’s notions of desire and resistance and speculate why he did not have much conversation with Eric Fromm. But for Lacan, too, the category of fear of freedom was critical.

Professor Upendra Baxi is Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Warrick and Delhi.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.