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Democracy in peril

Its spirit can’t be renewed without the power of emancipatory education

Democracy in peril

Flawed: Democracy can’t be saved merely through the ritualisation of periodic polls. PTI

Avijit Pathak


There are many ways of looking at the recent Summit for Democracy initiated by US President Joe Biden. Yet, what is difficult to deny is that a summit of this kind is an acknowledgement of the harsh reality — not everything is fine with democracy amid rising authoritarianism and all sorts of totalitarianism in different parts of the world. ‘Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,’ said Biden. Yet, as he said, ‘we have to renew it with each generation’. Biden is right. However, the moot question is: How do we do it?

Democracy needs our alertness and courage — and this requires the light of critical pedagogy.

There are four points that deserve special attention. First, the democratic spirit of freedom or the ability to choose one’s life-project requires a reasonable degree of socio-economic empowerment, and decolonisation of consciousness. As we recall the brutal history of colonialism, its politics of cultural invasion and economic loot—the way the masters of the ‘democratic’/ ‘enlightened’ West deprived the colonised of the principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, we realise the hypocrisy of ‘western democracy’. And who can deny that the much-hyped ‘American democracy’ is inseparable from neocolonialism and the history of war in modern times? No decolonisation, no democracy.

Second, a society like ours, characterised by heightened class inequality and oppressive practices like patriarchy, casteism and religious bigotry, is inherently against democracy because it doesn’t allow a large section of the population to unfold its creative potential, and live with the light of dignified work and liberating education. As a matter of fact, we see only the façade of democracy through the ritualisation of periodic elections, and routinised deliberations in legislative assemblies. But then, democracy is not merely an act of voting, ‘electing’ one’s master, and existing as a passive receiver of ‘pro-people’ promises. Believe it, it is not altogether impossible to have a ‘democratically elected’ anti-people government’ that serves primarily the interests of the privileged classes.

In contemporary times, neoliberalism (with its onslaught on shared/public concerns, and resultant promotion of market-driven/privatised solutions) is a major threat to the egalitarian principle of democracy. While it promises that one is free to make ‘choices’, and buy or consume any ‘product’ or ‘brand’, be it health, education or fast food, the fact is that most of us do not have the economic capacity to make these choices. Even though, to take a simple illustration, while none would prevent a construction worker or a marginalised Dalit woman from entering a spectacular shopping mall, it would be absurd to think that they could be able to buy a cup of Starbucks coffee, or send their children to a fancy ‘international’ school! Furthermore, the rising cult of narcissism, the growing anti-intellectualism and the gigantic propaganda machinery (ceaselessly invading our collective consciousness through the imageries of big and spectacular ‘development’ projects, or achievements in war and military power with the euphoria of assertive nationalism) pose a serious threat to what democracy needs — the ability to think critically, make the leader accountable, and distinguish development as pro-people/ecologically sustainable/socially empowering endeavours from the market-driven needs of techno-corporate global capitalism. Democracy can be in real danger, even amid ‘popular mandate’, multiple television channels and innumerable ‘brands’ for consumption.

Third, we must think of the widening gap between words and practices. In his speech at the summit, Prime Minister Modi said the democratic spirit or the ‘pluralistic ethos’ is ingrained in Indians. If we dare to keep our eyes open, and go deeper into the cultural landscape of this patriarchal/caste-ridden/fragmented society, we realise that there is not much substance in a statement of this kind. Instead, we are becoming increasingly anti-democratic. Think of the mighty assertion of majoritarianism, constant humiliation of the minorities, the epidemic of FIRs and sedition charges, demonisation of dissenting voices, growing attack on culture of protest and resistance, encouragement of intellectually impoverished and toxic television channels, monopoly of the resources by the rich, aggression of hyper-masculine nationalism, and growing insecurity of women, Dalits and tribal communities. Is it, therefore, surprising that these days India is often being seen as a site for ‘electoral autocracy’?

And fourth, the spirit of democracy cannot be renewed without the enchanting power of emancipatory education or critical pedagogy. In our times, this is precisely what is in danger. For all practical purposes, education has been reduced to either an exam-centric, official curriculum-oriented and regimented schooled consciousness, or some sort of ‘skill learning’ for reducing human subjects into mere resources for techno-capitalism. This sort of education does not liberate one’s consciousness, or encourage one to sharpen the art of debate, dialogue, creative awakening and critical thinking. Instead, it breeds the ideology of hyper-competitiveness, selfishness and reckless consumerism. It abhors the ethics of care, cooperation, sharing and justice. No wonder, critical pedagogues like Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) and Henry Giroux pleaded so passionately and convincingly for emancipatory education — the spirit of learning and unlearning that empowers the student, and enables her to see through the discourse of power, resist oppressive/regressive social practices, and understand the distinction between organic needs and market-driven false needs or desire. It is only through this sort of education can we nurture a democratic generation who can hope, dream of a better world, activate their agency, and refuse to be fooled by authoritarian figures, neoliberal techno-fascists, militant nationalists, sexist fundamentalists and Stalinist ‘revolutionaries’.

Democracy cannot be saved merely through the ritualisation of periodic elections; nor can it be saved through the occasional delivery of ‘relief packages’ to the poor. Democracy needs our alertness and courage — and this requires the light of critical pedagogy.

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