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We live in interesting times

Will the politics of mass protest give us a humane, alternative power structure? Pratik Kanjilal writes.

columns Updated: Oct 08, 2011 07:47 IST

Every day, I open the newspaper and I'm reminded of the famous Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Actually, I don't think it's Chinese at all. I attribute it to the fictional storyteller Kai Lung, the sutradhar in Ernest Bramah's (1868-1942) humour writing.

We do live in interesting times. We have witnessed the death of communism and global bipolar disorder. I even own a piece of the Berlin Wall, a tourist's trophy from Checkpoint Charlie. And now, we are witnessing the death of capitalism and the global migraine of unipolarity. Next time I'm in NYC, I plan to pry loose some Wall Street paving to take home. Never know when it'll become another hot tourist attraction.

After World War 2, the greenback became the global currency and riding its power to attract wealth, the US took control of world affairs. Now, the capacity of the US to maintain a healthy dollar is in doubt, Europeans have laughed off its lectures about the troubled Euro and the Palestinians have brushed aside its objections and applied for full UN membership. And this Tuesday India, Brazil and South Africa humiliated the US in the Security Council.

This is the apocalyptic moment that communists had been promised, when capitalism would collapse on its "inner contradictions". Unfortunately, in the meantime, Mother Russia and the Chairman's China have turned capitalist, having collapsed on their own contradictions. Which, actually, are the same as the capitalist contradiction. Both political theories have a childlike belief in our capacity to build utopias when in reality, the world just muddles along.

Communism was doomed to failure because it tried to build a future utopia by denying human nature. But US-led capitalism was sold as a present utopia driven by natural human instincts. It was supposed to be good for you, like organic apples. But the propaganda ignored the worm in the apple: human greed. It's perfectly natural, and it is bringing a global political system to its knees.

So, with both the great political philosophies going to pot, what's left? What's right for the future? Not socialism - we Indians have seen something of its effects. What, then? The void beckons, grinning.

Which reminds me of Kai Lung's second curse, which I don't think he ever actually uttered: "May you come to the attention of the powerful." Into the void has stepped a slew of anti-establishment protest movements like the Arab Spring, Anna Hazare's agitation and Occupy Wall Street. They address disparate issues - dictatorship, corruption and the obscene power of money. But I think of them as a class because they exhibit fundamental similarities. They are amorphous, democratically invalid and yet valid, somehow, because they connect directly with public anger against hegemonies. And they affirm that people should do the talking, not money.

They're unsettling because they depart from democratic norms but that's precisely why we should take them seriously. If orthodox power structures are failing, we should consider alternatives. Which brings us to Kai Lung's third and final curse: "May your wishes be fulfilled." Will a decent, humane alternative emerge from the politics of mass protest? Or will another monster be born? Whatever, at least we'll be able to say that we've lived in interesting times.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 07, 2011 22:45 IST