Chapter XXVII PART IV
The Peril of the World-State
Democracy: The Idiot and the Non-Conformist
The concept of individual freedom has been at the centre of all democratic movements, modern and ancient. Sri Aurobindo enumerates two seminal ideas with which the Greeks had associated democracy:
(a) 'first, an effective and personal share by each citizen in the actual government, legislation, administration of the community,'
(b) 'secondly, a great freedom of individual temperament and action' (the Ideal of Human Unity, pg.509)
In fact, the degree of freedom vested with the individual in Athenian democracy was so eulogized that the subject who shied away from that freedom was considered to represent the ‘idiotes’ – a contemptuous forerunner of the modern term ‘idiot’.
Can that personal share and individual freedom flourish in modern democracies? Sri Aurobindo has his doubts but he admits a certain tendency in that direction was discernible in the USA at one time.
The concept of personal share is present but are shares of all individuals equal in status? Sri Aurobindo describes that this concept is ‘illusory for the individual although effective in the mass – in the periodical choice of his legislators and administrators’. [How true! This scribe remembers how a schizophrenic patient with both legs amputated told his doctor not to be contemptuous to him as both himself and the doctor had one vote each and were therefore equal in status!]
More important is the fact that the elected legislators do not necessarily represent the genuine needs, aspirations and the rights of their electors. Once the legislators are elected, they comprise the State, an impersonal, formless and bodiless entity which has become hugely monstrous in modern times. The hapless individual cannot relate to this impersonal entity and ‘is much more helpless than he was against old oppressions’ (Ibid). He becomes the modern version of the idiot in democracy – the Athenian idiot shied away from political freedom, the modern idiot is deprived of political freedom though basking in the illusory privilege of having the right to vote!
What happens to the non-conformist? Sri Aurobindo comments that when the individual voice is gagged completely and individual choice is sacrificed on the plea of uniformity, one lapses into an ‘impotent anarchism’ (impotent because it is difficult to erect a stateless machinery against the modern State which in many respects is more powerful than the Empire of yesteryears). Or else one retreats into the freedom of the soul or the freedom of the intellectual being’ (Ibid). Thus in Edwardian Britain which witnessed a spur of activities by the non-conformists around 1903, the gap between eulogized ideals and the political practicalities was too much to be borne. As a result, the non-conformists became so disillusioned with political activity that they withdrew from it. Even then the intellectual elitism of the non-conformists was so strong that it ensured the survival of a strong liberal press in North-East England for the next fifty years (Gliddon,Paul: Politics for Better or Worse: Political Nonconformity, the Gambling Dilemma and the North of England Newspaper Company,1903-1914 [16th December 2002], https:/doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.00222).
Another example of the non-conformist withdrawing from active political activities to the zone of intellectual freedom is that of Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954), one of the first generations of the Indian communists. After being expelled from the Communist Party he drifted from Marxism to a poise of liberalism (Radical Humanism) and even commented that ‘Marx went too far’ (Bottomore,Tom et al: A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 2nd Ed, Worldview Publications, India,2000).
The question is how a World-State would deal with the illusory share of the citizen in the State for responsibility ceases with the casting of the vote or with the non-conformist whose withdrawal from political interests would deprive the State of a meaningful participant!
Date of Update: 19-Apr-18
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu