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Towards a transformative politics

By John Samuel

Politics is part of almost all human activity. It is expressed in poetry and painting, through coercion and collaboration, in public and private spaces. But its ultimate aim must be to democratise society at all levels of human action and institutions, to celebrate the dignity of every individual and uphold his or her right to dissent and development

What is politics? 

Politics is the dynamics and expressions of power relationships within and among human beings, society and institutions. Power is dynamic, relative, contextual and process-based. Power gets formalised in various institutional arenas -- from family to the state.  However, even formalised power may be differently expressed in different cultural and social contexts. 

There are different locations, sources and processes of power. Power can be expressed in poetry as well as in paintings; power also can be expressed through aggression and accumulation; through contesting and collaborating; through brutal war and lasting peace and through crimes as well as punishments. Such locations and sources are negotiated by the contexts and cultures in which they are situated. Locations and sources of power operate through language, resources, knowledge, technology, networks, economics, and above all, human will to act and change a situation or condition. There are gentle as well as fierce expressions of power dynamics. Power can act horizontally, cyclically or vertically, depending on the context and institutional situation. 

An understanding of the sources, dynamics and expression of power is important to understand and approach the political process. Notions like “Power over”, “Power with”, “Power to” and “Power within” help us to understand the multiple dimensions and processes involved in politics. The most obvious and dominant form of organised politics is based on the institutionalisation of “power over”: power as a means to control, manipulate, dominate and even subjugate.  

Such dominant modes of power operate through coercion or consent. When coercive power constructs are legitimized as ‘common sense’, hegemonic power relationships are formed in a society. In a modern and postmodern society, such hegemonic power is managed and regulated by the state, by claiming both a monopoly of power and legitimacy to regulate it. Since the state is expected to be the site of collaborations for managing the monopoly claims of power, those who have relative control over natural and economic resources tend to capture the state through either military might or by virtue of being in the majority in electoral politics. Though the state makes a monopoly claim over statutory power – through the “rule of law” and power over “law and order” -- in reality the dominant modes of power get expressed and operated through the Military, the Market and the Media. This is precisely why those who control state power seek to establish the legitimacy of their power through multiple negotiations and trade-offs with the Military, the Market and the Media. 

One has to understand and appreciate politics in the plurality of its processes as well as its expressions. This can only be done by decoding the institutional and institutionalised dimensions of power. There is the politics of the state. Then there are other manifestations such as the politics of the people, politics of knowledge, politics of technology; politics of identity, geo-politics, national and international politics. Such manifestations of politics signify various institutionalisations of power within a given space and time. 

The personal too is political. There is politics in sex; the politics of the body; there is politics in rituals and religions and there is indeed politics in language. Politics operates in the bedroom, dining room, classrooms and boardrooms. Every arena of human action has a power dimension and relationship and hence there is nothing which is apolitical. However, for the sake of analytical clarity, one has to make a distinction between micro-politics and macro-politics. 

Micro and macro-politics 

Micro-politics is about the dynamics, locations and process of power

relations within the family, institution or social community. Such micro-power relations are expressed through language, locations, attitude, behaviour, knowledge, as well as the process of social and cultural legitimisation. Issues like gender, caste, race and religion operate actively at levels of individual, family and community, through micro-politics. At an intimate level, micro-politics operates in terms of one’s choices and expression of sexuality as well as experiences of pleasure and pain.  

Micro-politics signifies the internalised genealogy and pathology of power. This is how over a period of time various gender roles are constructed to legitimise unequal and unjust power relations in the structures and locations of family, religion and community. 

The most manifest form of micro-politics is the control over productive and reproductive sources. And this control is mostly expressed in terms of patriarchy that seeks to control women as the most important reproductive source of life and living. Most of the unjust power relationships codified in micro-politics is that of expected roles and spaces, and in terms of rituals associated with birth, marriage and death. Also in relation to sexual roles, pleasure and pain involved in orgasm, and in sexual choices.  

Social transformation requires intensive engagement with micro-politics by challenging, changing, reforming and transforming to make it just and equitable. This involves changing language, attitude, behaviour as well as spaces and expressions of power within the family and communities. 

Macro-politics is the dynamics of power-relationships among and between institutions and institutionalised forms of power. Such institutions may include that of state, religion, market and civil society. 

Institutions are expressions of the grammar of power. By grammar I mean a formalised set of rules, norms and defined inter-linkages, legitimised by knowledge and norms. The modern paradigm of macro-politics is mostly expressed in the power of the state, governments, governmentality and governance. 

The nation-state derives its power from the legitimacy of the constitution, claiming sovereignty and monopoly of power over a territory and people living in such a territory. Every constitution is constituted through historical, knowledge, economic, social and cultural processes and through various negotiations of power in all these spheres. The politics of the state is often the defining force of macro-politics because the grammar of the power within and beyond a given nation-state determines the power relationships in all other institutional arenas. The ‘statutory’ legitimation process of market, civil society and religion are based on ‘regulation’ of the power and politics of the state. Such constant negotiations and ‘regulations’ of technology of power tend to create cultures of govermentality of power in terms of legitimation, control as well as spaces. 

The grammar of power -- within the micro and macro arena -- is often controlled by the institutionalisation of knowledge, norms and historical and cultural ordering of life-worlds. This ordering of power is more often unequal and mostly unjust. Such unjust power relationships get expressed through discrimination, lack of dignity, exploitation, alienation and eventual dehumanisation. So it is a moral responsibility to humanise, deconstruct, decentralise and democratise power in all its forms and expressions.     Power can be an immense source of positive energy to create, to seek, to bridge, to build and to sustain. As a positive energy, power operates in an eternal cyclical interplay of shirsti (creation) sthithi (sustenance) and samhara (destruction). And politics is everywhere – in the bedroom, bathroom, classroom, boardroom; it is in our tastebuds and languages, within our body and beyond. And human creativity and life involve the ability to learn and deal with power in its million manifestations. 

Towards transformative democratisation 

I am a proponent of the politics of transformative democratisation: more of a political praxis that I have learned over a period of time through theorising practice and practice that emerges out of a theory of change. 

My politics is driven by a universal ethics -- moral choices and value premises -- informed by human dignity, equality, justice, responsibility to each other and the planet. It is informed and inspired by movements and struggles for economic, social, gender and ecological justice. My politics derives its moral legitimacy from various struggles and efforts to humanise the world all through history, through care and love; through our creative and committed searches to make the world and planet a better place to live in. My politics is about the imaginative potential of human beings to influence and transform the world within them, around them and beyond them in a constant search for freedom and justice. 

Democratisation is at the core of it. Democratisation can only happen when there is space for dissent as well as dignity; spaces to protest as well as to propose; spaces to imagine as well as innovate. Creativity, Community and Communication (through language and technology) are three aspects that make humans different from animals. And democratisation is a process to affirm and constantly rediscover the potential and possibilities of human creativity, community solidarity and communicative actions. 

I tend to think that social and political transformation happens through a whole range of cumulative processes for radical shifts as well as reformist advocacy: through knowledge, language, technology, and institutions. Hence influencing such cumulative processes for reformation as well as radical shifts is key for transformative humanism and democracy. 

Critiquing institutionalised forms of power is the first step towards transforming the dynamics of power. Institutionalised and dominant forms of power tend to self-preserve through benign or malignant modes of tyranny and terror; coercion and consensus; and ‘common’ sense as well as culture. If not constantly critiqued and challenged, all forms of institutionalised power can be oppressive, subjugating and dehumanising. Hence, critiquing and transforming institutionalised power is an attempt to resist dehumanisation and to relentlessly try to humanise and democratise power. 

This requires a combination of the politics of people, politics of knowledge, and politics of communication to challenge the dominating forms of power: whether it is the power of the state or power of the market or power of the mafia. 

My mission is to constantly work towards the humanisation and democratisation of structures and institutions of power, through contesting, collaboration and cooperative and communicative action based on the values of justice, freedom and equality of human persons. Such an approach seeks to bridge the Ideal and the Real. It may involve working in, working with, and working beyond the institutionalised forms of power without compromising the values of transformation. 

I believe that every human action and institution needs to be historicised, problematised, politicised and democratised. The critical transformative approach involves consistent and constant critique of power and a commitment to challenge unjust power relationships so as to humanise and democratise people, society, knowledge and institutions. The critical transformist approach to politics involves working within institutions and working beyond institutions; such an approach involves resisting, engaging and persuading power-relationships to ensure justice as fairness and human dignity as the right to live in freedom. 

There is a tendency among those controlling the nodal locations of power to monopolise power through claims of sovereignty. This monopolisation of power to control natural, productive and reproductive resources through ‘discipline’ and promises of ‘security’ are at the root of unjust politics both in its micro and macro expressions.  

So, politics for me involves challenging and changing monopolisation of power and injustice that is inherent in such unequal and unjust power relationships. Politics for me is challenging and changing unjust power relationships to ensure a life of dignity, of choices and of freedom to all human beings. Politics for me is all about humanising life-worlds as well as a quest for justice -- towards a sustainable, just and democratic society, governance and future. 

Politics for me is the democratisation of power, knowledge, technology and language. Politics for me is the celebration of human dignity through asserting and demanding human rights. Politics for me is to make change happen towards a just, sustainable, responsible world – one without poverty and war. Politics for me is to fight injustice, exclusion, marginalisation and dehumanisation. 

Politics for me is to take responsibility to imagine and suggest alternatives to unjust power relationships. Politics for me is to imagine a utopia -- a world without poverty and injustice where every person can live a life of dignity, freedom, enjoyment and responsibility. Politics for me is to listen to the voice of the last person. Politics for me is when every person can celebrate her/his dignity and right to dissent and development. Politics for me is to make the market work for the people, not the other way around. Politics for me is accountability from all power-holders, the state, the market and civil society. Politics for me is all about sovereignty of people and democratisation at all levels of human action and institutions. 

Politics for me is the courage of conviction to ensure sustainability of our planet, people, and eternal dreams for a joyful and just world. 

Infochange News & Features, October 2009