Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book review: Karuna Mantena on Unusual Politics: Ramin Jahanbegloo’s "The Gandhian Moment"

Ramin Jahanbegloo - The Gandhian Moment
Reviewed by Karuna Mantena
For Gandhi, mass political action came with a host of dangers. It bred collective egoism or self-expansion, a moral hubris that, in turn, could unleash a politics without limits. His challenge was to develop forms of nonviolent collective action that could temper this moral-political psychology and be effective without relying upon sheer force. Gandhi’s response was to return individualization to the dynamics of mass action. 

IN 1914, after two decades of political work on behalf of Indian migrants, M. K. Gandhi left South Africa to join the emergent scene of anticolonial and nationalist politics in India. Gandhi was eager to bring satyagraha(nonviolent action), his newly discovered political weapon, “into play on large scale on the political field for the first time.” In the century that has passed since Gandhi’s momentous experiments in mass nonviolent action in India, nonviolence has become a staple of protest politics across the world. Indeed, from the Occupy movements to the Arab Spring, it seems to be entering a new phase of resurgence and revitalization, but one where exhilaration and hope for change has been accompanied by disappointment and uncertainty.
Ramin Jahanbegloo’s The Gandhian Moment addresses the (ostensibly precarious) state of nonviolent politics today and considers how it can be given more enduring shape. He argues convincingly that the first and most important step is to view nonviolent politics as more than just resistance or political tactics, and to see it instead as a positive, emancipatory politics in its own right. Jahanbegloo takes Gandhian politics to be fundamentally anethical politics, both tethered to something beyond politics and mediated through self-transformation. Thus, the Gandhian “moment” of the book’s title refers not to Gandhi’s historical milieu but to a distinctive experience of political action: the existential moment of individual reinvention in which, the author contends, nonviolence becomes emancipatory praxis.
Jahanbegloo is most persuasive in his recovery of what Gandhi called theconstructive side of nonviolent politics (constructive satyagraha). In Gandhi’s words, “construction must always keep pace with destruction.” Political action that aims to undo the legitimacy of existing institutions — such as noncooperation and civil disobedience — must also generate new practices of authority, as well as new modes of individual and collective self-rule to reconstitute and stabilize the political realm. Gandhi is well known for his aversion to the modern centralized state (“violence in a concentrated and organized form,” he called it) and, as a result, has often been treated as an extreme anarchist or even a libertarian.
Jahanbegloo rightly argues that the creative-constructive side of satyagraha may actually point to an alternative notion of sovereignty. Nonviolent dissent needn’t be equated with a critique of sovereignty — it might be more consistent with a shared or plural sovereignty. Jahanbegloo conceives of shared sovereignty as a recognition of democracy, in the Aristotelian sense: respecting the principle of ruling and being ruled in turns. He believes that shared sovereignty can improve dialogue between communities, religions, and cultures that too often claim power in more exclusive terms. His elaborations on Gandhian thinking are nuanced and engaging, and serve as important responses to the political dilemmas posed by the struggles over democracy in the Middle East today. Jahanbegloo has the Arab Spring in mind and, perhaps more centrally, the longstanding Iranian dissident movement. He sees an urgent need in our contemporary moment to think more pointedly and imaginatively about how democratic uprisings can stabilize themselves.
Jahanbegloo’s wager is that Gandhian politics offer a path to overcoming authoritarian rule while avoiding the pitfalls of revolution. Whether Gandhian politics did stabilize India’s postcolonial transition is itself a controversial question; one need only think of the brutal partition that accompanied Indian independence. Nevertheless, Jahanbegloo is right to reconsider Gandhi from this angle — he was extremely sensitive to the dilemmas of transition. Indeed, one could argue that this was at the center of his continual meditations on the nature of swaraj (true independence or self-rule).
Directing Gandhi’s thinking toward contemporary concerns in this manner is a fruitful line of inquiry, and Jahanbegloo’s considerations are insightful... read more: