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The sensex of alienation

By John Samuel

Why are young people today falling prey to primary identity -- religion, language or race -- and picking up a bomb or a gun? Do people kill and die for a dream because they cannot sing their dreams? Can the increasing mistrust, alienation and anger only be addressed through long-term political, economic and cultural processes?

“Dying is an art, I do it exceptionally well,” wrote Sylvia Plath. How do people discover a new aesthetic of the self by erasing the self? Why do young people with gushing blood and bright eyes literally blow themselves up in fire and fury? There must be something deeply intimate about these acts of violence to oneself and others. There must be some unspeakable sense of agony and anger -- beyond conventional modes of communication or language. When some young people feel that life has failed to make any statements, or life itself becomes an unbearable burden, do they choose death as a communicative act? Does death become their medium of communication, not life or language? Is it an act of protest or an act of self-realisation, of self-denial, or sheer helplessness? Or is it a mix of all these?

Is dying an ‘art’ or is it a deeply political statement; is it an act of courage or cowardice? Why is it that some young people choose the gun or bomb, instead of writing a poem or falling in love? When people express deeply personal grief, hurt, alienation or anger in terms of dying and killing for a cause, what do you call them -- revolutionaries, martyrs or terrorists? Do people kill and die for a dream because they cannot sing their dreams?

These questions stare us in the face; they challenge us about our validity as human beings. These are questions without straight and simple answers -- stark reminders of the tragedy of our times. Every day, in the inside pages of newspapers, we read about one suicide bomber or another in the killing fields of Iraq or somewhere else. The easiest thing to do is to dismiss them, label them ‘terrorists’ and legislate them out of our lives and concerns. Easier still is to paint them as dangerous people to be captured, tortured and eliminated at any cost. The more difficult thing is to look for the deep psychology, sociology, economics and politics that manufacture alienation and blazing anger. A metal detector can recognise neither anger nor alienation. Prisons cannot contain discontent. Armies cannot lock up an idea or a cause. Missiles or submarines cannot fight a war within the self, a war deep inside our minds, a war of identities, personal histories and collective memories of discontent and discrimination. How have we reached this predicament in spite of unprecedented economic growth in many parts of the world and in spite of the breathtaking progress of science and technology?

Every suicide bomber signifies the new sensex of alienation. ‘Sensex’ is not only the barometer of finance capital markets; it has become the barometer of war and peace, politics and protest, prosperity and survival, in the ever-growing marketplace. This ongoing economic and technological growth is accompanied by a sense of inequality, a perceived sense of discrimination and injustice, and resultant alienation. If the sensex of growth is the thesis, then the sensex of alienation is the counter-thesis. Two of the suspects from a terror attack at Glasgow airport were from Bangalore -- symbol of the sensex of growth. Last year, Mohammed Mansoor Asghar Peerbhoy (31), a computer engineer who worked for an MNC in Pune, at an annual salary of Rs 19 lakh, was arrested for complicity in organising a series of bomb blasts across India. It seems the world is flat for both kinds of sensex -- they’re both about virtual realities, imagined communities, and constructed causes.

While Thomas Friedman discovered the flat world in a globalised Infosys in Bangalore, Kafeel Ahmed, who could have been a leading technocrat in the flat world, chose to give an entirely different meaning to the flat world -- by recklessly driving to destruction in another corner of the world. The suicide attack on Glasgow airport and the charges against a few highly educated professionals are a new landmark in the sensex of alienation. It is no longer the uneducated or half-literate, the different-looking ‘other’ in the wastelands of war-torn Afghanistan or Iraq who is willing to send a message out with his death.

Unless we address the causes and consequences of growing discontent and alienation, we will not be able to address the growing tendency of people to kill themselves and others for a perceived cause, dream, or promised life after death. There is a deeper problem -- in the way we learn history, in the way we use language and symbols, and in the way the notion of the ‘other’ is constructed as a suspect or an enemy.

What makes human beings distinct is our ability to create and communicate. When a deeper sense of cultural, social, economic and political alienation happens, our ability to communicate, convince and create is affected. When we cannot be creative, the unbridled energy of anger that comes from deep alienation is transformed into the power of destruction. All of human history can be seen as a constant tension between these two eternal ‘power plays’ within our mind -- the power to create and the power to destroy. The history of human civilisation can be seen as the power to communicate the creative or destructive urges of people, communities and countries. Our major predicament is that we and our children largely learn history through war and heroic acts of destruction, not through the poetic action of creation. So we know more about the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb -- the man of war -- and less about Dara Shikoh who bridged people and civilisations through poetry and translation. Most monuments of great civilisations are built on the destruction of the ‘other’ or victory over the ‘other’. It is the Alexanders, Genghis Khans, Napoleons and other war heroes who stand out in our history books -- where the power to destroy and power through war were legitimate enterprises of history and civilisation. The heroes or heroines in our history books are not poets, visionaries or creators. We learn less about those who unite human beings through their creative urges.

This ‘heroism’ of destruction is in many ways at the core of the notion of ‘martyrdom’ -- the urge to die for a cause (or a perceived cause) larger than life itself; the struggle to derive a sense of worth by using the power to destroy oneself and others. Such deaths require the sanctity of a meta-narrative. They become stepping stones to immortality and sainthood in a political group or religious institution. Both Catholicism and Communism thrived on it. The idea of the Crusades was built on this aspect of heroism for a larger cause -- for another world. Each religion came into being as a grand universal narrative for liberation and freedom, and ended up as a ‘civilisation’ of symbols, rituals and dogmas based on destruction, control and counter-narratives. In many ways what Marx said about religion -- religion is the opium of the people -- is true of all meta-narratives promising freedom and joy. Meta-narratives are often a mental escape from the agonies and predicaments of the present, and the perceived oppressions of the past and present. The bigger the meta-narrative, and the bigger the promise of a heaven of freedom, the more we are likely to mortgage our ability to dream and imagine. That escapism from our imagination, dreams, creative sensibilities and poetic urges is what makes religion (as the mother of meta-narratives) the opium of the people.

Dissolution or disillusionment with meta-narratives is a postmodern predicament. In the absence of a meta-narrative, a grand theory or big dreams about change, dispersed and disintegrated ideologies are expressed in the form of fragmented political processes. We no longer have big dreams beyond the urges to gratify desires that have been constructed by the marketplace. The sensex has become the barometer of our own security and of the stability of nations. If the sensex of growth is on track, we tend to think we are secure. It is in this ultimate illusion of the sensex of growth that we tend to forget the counter-sensex -- the sensex of alienationIn the absence of meta-narratives or grand promises of heaven, and in the presence of a growing sense of inequality, injustice, doubletalk and discrimination, young people no longer have a dream to dream, a cause to live for, a purpose larger than themselves, a sense of mission that captures the gush of blood from within.

When you do not have enough ideas around you, and when you feel you are pushed to the wall, what do you do? You fall into the trap of primary identity (religion, language or race) -- the easiest escape route. Through that primary identity you can construct a meta-narrative for another world -- a world after death, a heaven waiting -- and thus find the perfect political opium to escape. Jihad and the universal pan-Islamic ideology is emerging as a powerful meta-narrative for young Muslims who are alienated and angry. It is important to note that the pan-Islamic ideology is, on the one hand, a critique of new imperialism and on the other, an assertion of a reactionary politics based on exclusion. Such a meta-narrative uses the left critique of advanced capitalism to rationalise an entirely fundamentalist and patriarchal agenda based on a religious identity. The power of such a meta-narrative gives a sense of purpose to people who are at the receiving end of alienation. When people fail to see a purpose in living, they discover the purpose in dying -- in search of another world, a world of peace, joy and reward. 

When people lose trust in their own creativity, and when people lose trust in others, a sense of terror is born in the mind of the alienated. The terror within is often more torturous than the terror outside. In many ways, killing themselves and others is an escape from alienation, an act of exorcising the demon of the defeated self and the bitterness and anger that accompanies that defeat. So, suicide becomes an act of redeeming self-worth by destroying the self itself. When they fail to use the power of creativity, people end up using the power of destruction. When individuals do this, having no weapons other than their anger, we call it suicide. When countries do it, we call it war -- a ‘legitimate’ enterprise of history, civilisation and State!

When we cease to trust each other as human beings, a tragedy unfolds somewhere deep within. When we cease to trust, we lose a part of ourselves. When trust disappears from our lives and times, insecurity creeps into the innermost part of our being. Insecurity breeds fear and fear breeds insecurity. Fear and insecurity together create the ground for alienation. Alienation erodes trust. Alienation erodes hope. Alienation, like a cancer, kills creativity.

Thus begins the cycle of human tragedy in the 21st century. One of the biggest human tragedies of the 21st century is the emergence of identity as a marker of alienation, fear, insecurity and mistrust.

This can happen to individuals, communities and societies. At every point of transit such as airports, we confront suspicious eyes, probing questions, sniffing dogs. This challenges our sense of dignity and identity. At every airport, we carry our name, colour, language and appearance like heavy baggage to be scanned to ensure the veracity of our being; we are reminded that our own identities are heavy baggage under constant scrutiny of hidden cameras, security agents, the media, and other peeping toms.

We tend to get so alienated that we need Harry Potters and new fantasies in the marketplace to escape the growing insecurity within and around us. This explains the unprecedented sales of Harry Potter books and the revival of new spiritual and religious movements across the world. The more we feel secure economically, the more insecure we become from within.

In the good old days, the more you travelled the more tolerant and liberal you were supposed to become. But now the situation is being reversed: the more you travel, the more you are reminded of your identity and how alien you are in a new place. It seems the more we get connected, the less we trust each other because our identities and sensibilities are increasingly shaped by the globalisation of stereotypes and images.

The present predicament of increasing mistrust, alienation and anger can only be addressed through long-term political, economic and cultural processes. How can we ensure that the young people of tomorrow choose to write poems, fall in love, discover new things, and celebrate their creative urges, instead of falling victim to the destructive urge? We need a whole new understanding to counter stereotypes based on identity, religion and race. We may have to invest in a new generation to get out of this cycle of terror, counter-terror, violence and counter-violence across the world. We need to build new bridges and pull down the walls created around monolithic notions of culture and civilisation. Culture should give us a sense of belonging to humanity -- a means of redeeming our sense of trust, creativity and human community. We need to create a new history of creativity, a new aesthetic of being to counter alienation, discontent and discrimination.

(John Samuel is Editor of and Agenda, and International Director, ActionAid)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009