Saturday April 20, 2024

Intellect and action

By Amir Hussain
July 18, 2019

Never blindly believe in stories coming from a distant land or very distant persons until you see them happening yourself is one of the simple principles at work while authenticating the truth behind what is told to us. Stories are not utter fabrications though, there are always elements of truth in them and hence we all read or listen to them with great interest. Stories may not present the actual situation in varying social spaces but people still find some substance of interest in them because some part of each story is related to individual experiences.

We all are story-tellers, readers and listeners. Life, like stories, can be both lively and insipid. All fiction consists in concocted stories bearing witness to human creativity, but all stories are not mere fiction. That is why a story-teller finds more audience than a fiction writer. Myths are crafted somewhere between the two and glorify the magnanimity of nature, mysterious powers and heroes overcoming the forces of darkness. All human societies have stories, fiction and myths which shape our worldviews unless we transcend them to create universal wisdom.

Those who rise above stories, fiction and myths become liminal souls despite their high intellectual capabilities. The world has mostly been ruled by the mediocre; more so in the case of modern democracies. Modern democracy is a process of disengaging intellect and political action and hence it separates politician from statesman. Politician is chosen to rule statesmen where democracy is reduced to a substanceless exercise of casting a vote.

We generally associate a moral perspective to democracy as the best form of government and the most desirable political goal of all existing societies of the world. But we do not challenge the fundamental principles upon which modern democracy is founded. Democracy is the most desirable form of government only if it goes beyond the ritual of voting and creates an informed political society of downward accountability. Downward accountability means that the state and its functionaries are structurally answerable to the people.

Moreover, people make conscious political choices as citizens, becoming shareholders of the political and economic life of a state. Desirable democracy is one where intellect and action are interconnected, where statesmanship emerges from the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid and where people consciously participate as shareholders in a political and economic system. This is not to suggest a platonic world of philosophers and intellectuals; this is about extending the writ of the people from casting votes to participating in the formulation of social, political and economic policies.

In modern capitalist democracies electioneering is a norm in that corporate money is used to influence public opinion where people have no choice other than voting for blue eyed boys of the corporate world. Election becomes a predefined corporate agenda between competing corporate narratives and those who turn down the corporate agenda lose the race. The corporate world needs action oriented mediocrity to establish political supremacy in modern capitalist democracies.

One of the best recent examples of action-oriented mediocre politicos is that of Donald Trump whose victory was ensured by spending millions of corporate money to craft his lunacy into cowboy action. The white American working class was targeted with and influenced by xenophobia and racism against immigrant workers and Trump was portrayed as a savior. Trump played well to present himself as the best corporate boy to further their economic interest and by cutting down on social security provisions. Those who went to vote for their political candidate were already influenced by media campaigns of corporates wanting their chosen candidate to win the elections.

If people cannot challenge the unrestrained power of the corporate world, democracy becomes only a smokescreen where a powerful ruling class continues to rule politics without giving much regards to public opinion and collective interest of the people. This is not only about developed capitalist democracies, this is also true for the developing world where the powerful elite holds sway in shaping democracy in their own ways. Part of the credit for the victory of Modi as prime minster of India goes to huge corporate investments meant to create a Hindutva business brand of India. People were lured into casting votes for the false glory of shining India.

Modi’s victory suggests that the separation of intellect and action has worked well in India too. Modi has all the wisdom to serve his corporate masters but those who voted him in for the second term were only action oriented ill-informed lots. In Pakistan there is a complex mix of corporate and traditional power base whose chosen candidates have not been less mediocre than Trump and Modi. The only difference is that our national resilience is more impressive than the Americans’ and the Indians’ in bearing the cost of choosing mediocrities.

The wisdom of Socrates and Plato could not earn more admiration than the war mediocrity imposed by Alexander the Great. Ideas, intellect and brain find little admiration from mediocrities of a society while men/women of brawn revel in our collective worldviews formed through stories, fiction and myths. Men of ideas like Socrates and Plato were not men of action and hence their influence remained marginal compared to the warriors of their time. These great Greek thinkers were rediscovered later during the age of reason only. Ideas and intellect can work well only if they invite action to dislodge prevalent stories, fiction and myths of a society.

Intellectuals without action are only daydreamers of their time, to be appreciated posthumously by posterity. Prophets, reformers and revolutionaries challenged prevalent stories, fictions and myths of their times and they combined the power of intellect and action. Great revolutionaries live in the present to make history through informed actions while armchair intellectuals live in the past or in the future and they expect others to act on their ideas. Intellect without action gives birth to ego and action without intellect leads to chaos.

Plato’s philosopher king was a creation of his ego and the destruction wrought by the Mongols was the result of action without intellect. If we compare ideas and actions as two separate domains of human existence, actions prevail. Real societal transformation takes place only if intellect and action are combined to create a better world. Scientific socialism of the 19th and 20th centuries created unprecedented influence on world politics because of its ability to combine intellect and action. Marxism in the 20th century is perhaps the most concrete example of political action with intellect. It could not defeat the mediocrity of elite democracy though but it demonstrated the possibility of a better world. It also created political awareness among the downtrodden and oppressed classes that they can create a world of their own choosing through conscious political action. Marxism also exposed the nexus between politics, economy and dominant ideas of a society and it outlined the political roadmap of a society where individuals with conscious choices matter.

If Marxist democracy was the best political and economic alternative to modern capitalist democracies, then why did it fail to achieve its universal goal? This is a very large and complex subject which cannot be accommodated in an opinion piece. However, it is important that we must not shy away from discussing these ideas and understand their essence to formulate a better worldview that combines action and intellect. The universal principle of effective change lies in combining theory and practice or intellect and action.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.


Twitter: @AmirHussain76