All societies, including democracies, initiate, as a mechanism of rendering some communities irrelevant or as threats, a set of stories. These stories may or may not be founded on any empirical evidence: it is sufficient if they are repeated enough number of times to generate not just belief but also affect: fear, anger, hatred. Large-scale actions can then be initiated, which then establish the veracity of what was, in the very first instance, myths or plain lies. The best example for this mode of operations in the modern era would be the War on Terror.Based on the founding lie about the weapons of mass destruction that would and could destroy the world, an entire panoply of ‘counter-measures’ was adopted. The counter-measures were real, and vast swathes of land and people were indeed destroyed. It was argued that this ‘just war’ was essential to safeguard the interests of the world. The reality of this war then ‘proved’ that the interests of the world – in terms of, maybe oil? – were indeed at stake.
Hannah Arendt, examining the foundations of propaganda and society, observed in her essay ‘Approaches to the ‘German Problem’:The spirit in which the Nazis destroyed Germany — in order to be proved in the right: an asset which may be of the greatest value for their future activity. They destroyed Germany to show that they were right when they said the German people were fighting for its very existence; which was, at the very outset, a pure lie.
To transform lies – for example, lies about the burgeoning population of one community, or the economic threats posed by another or the intrinsic lack of ‘merit’ in particular segments of society (that have been historically denied access to education or training to even become ‘meritorious’) – into reality is the fabrication of a particular social order in which one community or another is the perennial threat, and what Arendt, in another essay (‘The Seeds of a Fascist International’) terms, the ‘fabrication of a lying reality’.In our age – often called the age of ‘post-truth’ – those helming the affairs of the state ride to and retain power by this fabrication of a lying reality. For example, one does not need statistics about employment or income levels of communities: it is sufficient to speak convincingly about ‘progress’, ‘development’ and ‘inclusive growth’. We are no longer bombarded with statistics and reports from National Sample Survey Office or other reliable parametric analysts. Instead, we simply have confounding rhetoric using these terms. This becomes a form of cultural domination. It enables the making of a social discourse and a social imaginary – a broad set of beliefs, myths, stereotypes and symbols that people come to trust and employ – founded on myths, lies and unverifiable but always ‘moving’ stories.
The transformation of lies and myths into foundational policy and thence into legislation or, horrifically, even vigilante action (say, about the source of meat eaten by some?) is more than cultural domination. For, when it affects lives, it is a form of war, to which a counter-measure demands the making of alternative stories and cultural discourses. Antonio Gramsci spoke eloquently of the ‘War of Position’, the struggle to gain influence in society. Distinct from the ‘War of Manoeuvre’, which Gramsci characterised as a struggle against the state in a country where ‘the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous’, the War of Position emerges in a liberal-democratic society where the state relies on civil society. The War of Position is the resistance to cultural domination, where public discourses hijacked by specific ideologies and overrun by myths of the ‘Other’ become solidified into the state and its apparatuses of governance. All battles, in other words, are not fought at the polling booths or on the streets, for most battles begin much earlier, in the cultural realm and in the realm of the imagination.
The ‘role of political power’, said Michel Foucault in ‘Society Must be Defended’, ‘is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals’. Thus, politics is ‘war by other means’, he emphasised in this same talk. One can easily see that, in the age of media-saturated politics, war is fought for the control of the imagination, whether in terms of imagining one’s friend or foe. Those in power seek to retain power not necessarily by executing ‘dissenters’ in the street but by creating a social and cultural imaginary in which certain people and bodies can be easily labelled or stereotyped as ‘dissenters’. It becomes, then, a more insidious use of force.
The War of Position is directed at battling the attempted takeover of the cultural and imaginative realm. The outlines of such a War of Position may be found in a recent piece by Avijit Pathak (https://thewire.in/politics/is-it-still-possible-to-strive-for-yet-another-india) :a liberating politico-economic and cultural philosophy that takes us to a broader/inclusive and cosmopolitan idea of man and society. And I have always believed that the cultivation of this aesthetically enriched radical practice requires a continual conversation with Kabir and Ambedkar, Gandhi and Tagore, and Marx and Nehru.Cultural vigilance and a lot of cultural work, from the classroom to public writing and debates, constitute a War of Position. Recognising what the novelist Chimamanda Adichie termed ‘the danger of a single story’, cultural work redefined here as a War of Position is the task of civil society, if it wishes to stay civil or even a society.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)