Anarchism, not a dirty word

…though “anarchy” is often used as a crude synonym for “chaos”, and together as a kind of one-two-punch description for the most-feared state of things that might result.  The word has clear linguistic roots in Greek, to describe various forms of government such as “monarchy”, “oligarchy”, and “patriarchy”, and the prefix “an-” means “without”.  Anarchism is a political philosophy that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, producing several diverse theorists and short-lived social experiments, the last of which was destroyed by its erstwhile allies the more power-hungry Communists in the Spanish Civil War.  Anarchism seeks to organize society with a bare minimum of governmental structures, relying on direct citizen participation to take decisions that the community collectively requires.  Frequent referenda and ad hoc committees are its most obvious tools, and it probably works best in small communities where there is a relationship of trust and goodwill among neighbours.  Delegating decision-making power in advance to representatives, no matter how they are chosen, and seeking enforcement from some distant institutional authority, are not available options.  Ironically, there is left-wing anarchism which assumes neighbours will freely cooperate for everyone’s benefit, and right-wing anarchism or libertarianism, which draws opportunists simply because of the lack of institutional control on an individual’s actions.  Disappointingly, anarchism is probably a utopian philosophy, attractive but unrealistic.  We have come to assume that it is human nature, validated in theory by Darwinism, and coached incessantly in practice by capitalism, to relate to our neighbours competitively, not cooperatively.  Equitable distribution and motivation by selfishness are seen to be at odds – why revolutionary Marxism could never out-grow its interim stage of totalitarian “dictatorship of the proletariat” to coexist side by side with its non-Marxian neighbours in the world economy, without close control and protective barriers.
National elections aren’t due in India until April – May, but already public discourse, in the media at least, has been gripped by election fever, due to the sudden emergence in state assembly elections last December of the Aam Aadmi (“common man”) Party in the capital, Delhi.  Begun as an anti-corruption protest movement, against a huge accumulation of scandalous political cronyism and public cynicism, the AAP found itself elected in 28 out of 70 constituencies, and formed a minority state government with the support of the decimated, incumbent Congress Party.  Unprepared as anyone for its own success, the AAP is scrambling to extend its momentum nationwide.
The broad-based, secular Congress Party, has coasted with gradually-diminishing success over the decades on its association with the independence movement in colonial times.  Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the original freedom fighters, carried India forward into independence with true statesmanship and vision.  His daughter Indira Gandhi was first to inherit the mantle of leadership and proved herself a strong politician.  Since her assassination, it seems that a sentiment of entitlement has repeatedly trumped a search for new talent, as the party leadership passed to her son, the ill-fated Rajiv Gandhi, then his widow Sonia, and now, thirty years on, it looks to be his son Rahul.  Governing a diverse, contentious polity like India, is obviously a huge challenge, and behind the reassuring dynastic face of the Congress Party in government lurk the many entrenched ministerial and bureaucratic administrators, who seem to represent power for its own sake, rather than a guiding political vision.  Any government too long in incumbency accumulates suspicions of favouritism and abuse of its connections, requiring if only on principle “a new broom to sweep clean”.  Implausibly, Rahul claims to be an outsider, a reluctant Prime-Ministerial candidate, but the next moment engages in “seat-sharing” alliances with regional political bosses.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, with its high-profile Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, was widely expected to definitively overtake the declining Congress-led coalition, until the advent of the AAP.  But the socially and fiscally conservative BJP is too-closely identified with the majority Hindu community to be supported whole-heartedly by secular and liberal moderates.  The entry of the AAP has suddenly offered a fresh alternative for voters to express their disapproval of the Congress Party’s baggage of controversies and insider-trading.
For this Canadian observer, the parallels with the trajectories of Canada’s political parties are remarkable and instructive.  The centerist Liberal Party, for long the “natural governing party” under its Nehru-like Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his more down-to-earth successor Jean Chretien, lost its momentum under businessman Paul Martin Jr., and failed repeatedly to re-establish an intellectual kind of leadership under environmentalist Stephane Dion and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff.  It currently sits third in number of MP’s.  The moderate-right Progressive Conservative Party, frustrated at being too long the Opposition, fragmented and re-made itself, ultimately dropped the “Progressive” qualifier, and took on a more socially and fiscally right-wing, western-Canadian, and pro-U.S. character.  In spite of the void left by the Liberals, the Conservatives under stolid, Modi-like Stephen Harper struggled to get elected in the more cosmopolitan urban areas, where his conservative values are not representative.
Twenty years earlier, in a provincial legislature election in Ontario, my province with the biggest population, urban centres, and industrial base, for the first time the moderate-left New Democratic Party was elected to govern.  Not a new party, and with its roots nationally and provincially in representing unionized labour, it had always placed third but under the earlier leadership of the charismatic Tommy Douglas is credited with establishing Canada’s publicly-funded healthcare system.  In Ontario, with voters in a mood to try something new in economically difficult times, the NDP were elected.  No one could have been more surprised or less prepared, and mistakes were made, often due to the inexperience of first-time members of the legislature.  To reduce a mounting public-sector deficit, Premier Bob Rae imposed notorious “social contract” legislation, cutting teachers’ salaries with unpaid holidays.  After one term, the NDP returned to third-party status, and Bob Rae went on to the national parliament… as a Liberal.
My conclusions are two-fold: first, that to call the AAP “anarchist” in an accusatory tone is misleading, and for them to accept that label is courageous, well-meant, and honest in the sense that they are trying to maintain the closest possible contact with their electors’ concerns in an era when new social media provide opportunities for open and immediate consultation.  How far that openness will carry in the business of effective government, is another matter, and can’t be quickly proven.  But by another measure, the few months before Lok Sabha elections are a long time: plenty of time in which the AAP can accumulate enough overly enthusiastic blunders and unfulfilled initiatives, to eclipse the bright light of their appearance two months ago.
P.S., 15 Feb14: The headline today is that the Delhi AAP government has resigned over its failure to introduce its Jan Lokpal Bill – to establish a kind of parliamentary ombudsman – into the state assembly (defeated by a vote of all non-AAP parties 42 to 28, including their short-lived Congress Party support), in a deadlock prompted by the Lieutenant-Governor over whether Delhi’s state government could introduce legislation without a go-ahead from the national government.  It remains to be seen if the AAP will be able to retain its anti-corruption support in national and/or new Delhi elections, or whether people will see the AAP as too much of a long shot and turn to the BJP.

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~ by Peter Harris on 24/02/2014.

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