The ‘telos’ of modernity

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An interview with Dipankar Gupta, Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi by Nicola Missaglia, ResetDoc, Rome.


Are there different paths to modernity? If yes, how is India’s modernity different?

There are indeed different paths to modernity. There are the various European paths, the American path, the Ataturk path, the Lee Kuan Yew path, the Indian path, and so on. What is significant is that each path, if successful, will yield a set of results which must be present for a society to be called ‘modern’. We must be careful in not overstating the case because no society can ever arrive at this final destination completely.


Why is it not possible to be completely modern?

This is because ‘modernity’ is an evolving project. The idea of being modern is not a static one. Much like democracy, whose demands keep growing and changing with time (for example, the rights of women, rights of minorities, the dismantling of property qualifications as eligibility criterion for voting rights and so on), so too in modernity the characteristic features keep changing with time. With every progress modernity makes, a new horizon opens up. This is true not just of democracy and modernity, but also of other concepts like capitalism or socialism. Therefore, just as no society is fully capitalist, but to be counted as one, some essential features must be dominant; similarly to be modern, certain crucial characteristics must be present.


What are these essential features of modernity?

While the understanding of modernity might mutate with time, a little attention will show that the changes that we see are really instances of the original telos (or idea that seeks fulfilment) expressing itself more and more comprehensively. In democracy, for example, the rights given to women and minorities are manifestations of the original impulse in democracy; they are not in the nature of afterthoughts.

Likewise, for modernity today it is important to stress the following features: inter-subjectivity between social actors; ethical anonymity in social relations; and the public constraining the private world.

These result in open hierarchy; public ethics replacing private morality; transparency and accountability in public behaviour; and trust in institutions replacing trust in people


What do you mean by inter-subjectivity?

To understand inter-subjectivity, it must be seen in conjunction with its complements, viz., ‘ethical anonymity’, and the domination of the ‘public over the private’. In my view these are different ways of expressing the same thing. Tautologies are sometimes useful for they bring to fore certain characteristics of the original statement that might go unnoticed.

The original statement of modernity, its telos, is inter-subjectivity. While we know there are other people, performing other roles, we also know that their lives and our lives intersect in a number of places. We could easily be them, and their lives and ambitions are not too different from us and those of our family. In other words, our collective existence is within an ontological horizon that is largely uniform. Thus even as we are different, we all have similar starting points because these are equally accessible to all.

On account of this inbuilt inter-subjectivity in modern societies, one’s relationship with strangers is not predicated on one’s pre-knowledge of the person’s role and status. I may not know a person but I would still accord respect in my interactions with such an individual just as if that person could be me, or very much like me. Anonymous relationships are thus marked by an ethical consideration. For these reasons our interactions with others who may belong to a different linguistic or religious community are conditioned primarily by the principle of inter-subjectivity. This not only puts ethical anonymity in the forefront but, by the same token, also calls out to the public sphere to dominate the private.

Marital rape and child abuse can no longer be seen as a private affair, as individuals are first members of the public and hence deserve recognition first and foremost at that level. Any instance of domestic violence, for example, will be viewed in inter-subjective terms and the principle of ethical anonymity will come into action immediately.

Consequently, hierarchies, such as they exist, will be open and not closed. Inter-subjectivity cannot operate in closed hierarchical systems, such as caste or race. One will need to learn to trust institutions over personal relations or else inter-subjectivity and ethical anonymity cannot be fully experienced. Hence, morality which can be privatized will be superseded by ethics.


Why should morality and ethics not be identical?

This might seem like a difficult philosophical tangle, but it is really quite simple if we recall Emmanuel Levinas’s view that ‘Ethics is other people.’ It is possible for a person to claim a high moral status, either as a vegetarian, or as a truthful person, or as a good parent, and yet live with others who do not abide by such norms. On the other hand, it is not possible to be ethical alone. Ethics is setting up rules of interaction where other people matter. This is the reason why ethics demands transparency and accountability in public life. It becomes much more realizable as it is built into our conduct and is not an outcome of individual will power or exceptional conduct. Consequently, our relations with other people who may be unknown to us are, nevertheless, conditioned, in the ultimate analysis, by inter-subjectivity. These in turn lead to ethical anonymity and the domination of the public, thereby closing the circle that the original telos of modernity set in motion.

If we keep this understanding of modernity uppermost, we realize almost instantly that no society is fully modern; but some are closer to modernity than others. This is just what we might say even of capitalism, welfare state, and so on. No country can fully qualify, but some do much more than others.


Is modernity the same as technical innovations, industrialization, etc?

We should also note that modernity here is not being understood as a morphological attribute, such as in terms of the number of cars, or slums or smoking chimneys. Modernity is about social relations. All major social concepts are defined in terms of relations between people; so why should modernity be any different? Capital is not just money, but a relation between capitalists, labourers, engineers, managers, shop floor supervisors, etc. It is the specific character of these interactions that makes a society capitalist. Likewise, power too, is a relation especially when it is seen in terms of legitimate authority.


Can one have contemporary advances in technology without being modern?

What has been said so far should also clarify the confusion between the modern and the contemporaneous. Just because something is happening today does not make that event modern. Not all contemporaneous facts and occurrences can claim to be modern: some can, but some others must be kept out. To argue, for example, that the use of modern technology to kill ethnic enemies is a sign of modernity is unacceptable. This is how detractors of modernity give this phenomenon a bad name. This first order confusion between modernity and contemporaneity needs to be clarified at the start.


Is there then one modernity or many? After all societies are so different, so modernity must reflect this. Can India’s modernity be different from that of Europe?

Modernity has its central telos but there are several possible paths to becoming modern and realize this telos. In each case, however, modernity must be carefully grafted as it is not something that grows naturally. This is yet another attribute modernity shares with democracy.

When scholars argue that there are multiple modernities they are almost always unable to either distinguish the path for the destination or, as more frequently is the case, the contemporaneous from the modern. The other danger of succumbing to the allure of multiple modernity is that we fail to pressure systems to be modern in the inter-subjective sense. In its place we find flabby justifications for non-modern behaviour in contemporary times. This is done under the lofty pretence that no one version of modernity should have cultural hegemony over another.

The fact is that modernity, wherever it has appeared, in whatever form, to whatever degree, is because it has been deliberately introduced. While those who were responsible for this development may not have known all its consequences, modernity does not grow calmly out of capitalism, or out of socialism. True, welfare societies and social democracies are the best examples of most achieved modernity but these dispensations were clearly outcomes of deliberate interventions. Let Europe not forget its own history!

It is not just a question of Europe versus India. Yet, one must admit that Europe has a lot to teach us while we consider the various routes to modernity. There is no need however to imitate Europe, especially when we have the wonderful opportunity of learning from it. If we admit multiple modernity then we lose sight of its telos and confuse it with the contemporaneous. This would give modernity a bad name and halt the progress of humankind in our subcontinent.


Is there some kind of exoticism in Europe’s interest in India’s quest to be modern?

Yes, sometimes there is a kind of exoticism in the European interest in India. Among other issues, it crops up again in the context of multiple modernity. Europeans and North Americans want to be politically correct and hence find it difficult to say outright that India is not ‘modern’ in the way their societies are. It is much more convenient to suggest that India is modern, but in a different way, the Indian way, the spiritual way, the Hindu way, or whatever. Exotic idealizations are useful for political domination, but never for a scientific understanding of a society. Exoticisation also separates the observer from the observed in a way that is so complete that it often escapes attention.


As Europe is largely monocultural, its way of expressing democracy and addressing minority issues has to be different from that of India.

True, democracy came to Europe differently, because each European country came to nationhood differently. Again, the same argument: there are many roads to nationhood, but every nation, once it becomes a nation, must make its territory sacred on a popular basis. Patriotism gets its emotive appeal from this fusion of blood and soil. Once this is acknowledged, it will be easier to appreciate why democracy is not the same as nationhood, nor does it emerge easily from it.

It is important at this point to correct another misunderstanding. Europe was not monocultural when nations came out of its empires. In post-revolution France only 17% spoke French. After Italy was formed Massemio d’Azeglio discovered that only 2% spoke Italian. This prompted him to proclaim: ‘Now that we have made Italy, let us make Italians.’

Since then nation states have evolved and many have become democracies, particularly in Europe. Over time, democracy included minority rights and respect for other languages as well. Today, these are part of democracy’s legacy and we cannot pretend that India in 2011 is 18th century France or 19th century Italy. In Europe, the minority issue is linked to immigration, which is what makes it very different from the Indian case.


Does it mean that India’s approach to minorities has to/will be different from that of Europe?

When you have minorities it is not a question of numbers that decides their fate and nomenclature. They must feel persecuted enough to band together, and this sentiment is often accompanied by real or imagined economic and or political grievances against them. If these minorities are from within the original population, then their claims have a different kind of resonance than those who have come from another country. The two cannot be equated.

The minority problem in India is primarily a Muslim one, though Sikhs, Parsees and Christians have also been added on for the record. The real issue is with the Muslims and this is a post-Partition phenomenon. The hostility between India and Pakistan keeps invoking the horror of the Partition that justifies ethnicists in both countries. There is clear evidence to show that ethnic riots in India have always been on account of administrative connivance, if not outright support. They have also been timed to maximize electoral advantage.

While the victims of ethnic riots, the minorities, demand their rights as citizens and want justice, the majority community members claim that they have acted in the name of the ‘people’ to teach ‘outsiders’ a lesson. Muslims in India are likened to Pakistani agents by the majoritarian ethnicists to justify their assaults in the name of patriotism. This shows that nationhood and patriotism have little to do with the ethics of citizenship which is all about inter-subjectivity, hence modernity.

Minorities cannot be decided by numbers alone. The best way to tackle the minority issue in India is to make sure that the laws of the land are upheld by those in authority. This seems simple, but is not quite so in practice as it is the state and its administrative wings that are implicated, often closely, in the carnage.

The minority problem in the West is on account of migration and the solutions to that will be very different from the Indian case. The European case is also of a dissimilar order from the Indian one on two further counts. First, language has never been an issue which has raised minority consciousness or feelings of persecution in this country. Second, as phenotypical differences in physical types are largely unremarkable, they have not led to racism and racist politics in the entire subcontinent.

What however stands firm is that no concessions can be made, either in India or in the West, that compromise values of citizenship. Once that happens there will neither be inter-subjectivity, nor the domination of the public over the private. People will claim special privileges on religious grounds, either for the veil, or for keeping women at home. This will justify domestic violence and perpetuate medieval traditions. A citizen is a modern concept for it embraces all the virtues of modernity discussed earlier.

This point is important as there is a lot of pressure to yield to certain traditional customs in the name of being democratic. Very often it is the cultural virtuosos among migrant communities that make such demands, for it is in their interest that these concessions be made. Over time, the interests of these virtuosos consolidate and they become the mediators between the state and the migrants. That they are able to do this at all is because these virtuosos prey upon the initial feelings most migrants have of being rootless. This helps the virtuosos to pose as the spokespeople of the migrant communities, giving the impression that the many of the so-called ‘multicultural’ demands they make are not for themselves but for the people they claim to represent.

It should be very clear that migrants have chosen to come to the host country. The host country should, on its part, treat the migrants, without prejudice, as equals; even help them to become equals. Receding from citizenship and inter-subjectivity to placate the calls of alleged ‘multiculturalism’ of the virtuosos will do more harm than good to the migrants.


Does India have anything to learn from the West?

What India can learn from Europe is that the law cannot be compromised to suit special claims by the majority community, or to condone and overlook attacks on minorities in the name of the people or under the cover of patriotism.


How can democracy tackle multiculturalism?

One needs to take on board from the very start that there was no multiculturalism before democracy. In the past, different communities lived side by side, but it was the rule of the dominant community, who were often in a numerical minority, that mattered. The idea of multiculturalism is a creation of democracy.

Having said that, multiculturalism is a problem in the West primarily because Europeans have forgotten their own history. Europe has progressed down the road to modernity because it steadfastly fought (with some reversals, of course) to establish a public sphere where citizens function in a hierarchical structure that is open to everybody. Today, a variety of multiculturalism wants to close off certain aspects of this open society in the name of religion or tradition. When that happens, it is the job of modernity and democracy to oppose such moves without compromise. Citizenship cannot be bartered at the altar of multiculturalism. Uniformity of dress and religious behaviour is not the issue. That should be allowed. But when they impede freedom of the sexes or promote the domination of a community of elders, and so on, then such cultural practices have to be strictly put away.


Do you think India will have to choose between democracy and tradition?

Democracy is a modern concept as it involves inter-subjectivity, ethical anonymity (an essential requirement for an urban and cosmopolitan life) and the domination of the public in all realms, including the domestic. Under such conditions it cannot tolerate caste and other traditional barriers to an open society.

Once compromises are made on this count, democracy may well remain in form, but will be hollowed out from within. There will be elections, votes will be cast, but the rules of the game will not be of the kind that will allow inter-subjectivity to develop. Instead, one might see a kind of patronage based democracy, where we elect patrons through the ballot box.

Not unlike the cultural virtuoso among migrants, there is also the live possibility of ethnic sectarians and caste leaders emerging in India in the name of democracy. Even if the people would like to vote for secular issues, all too often communal and ethnic activists raise passions to such a pitch that matters which really count are obscured from popular view.

We need to remind ourselves, repeatedly, that democracy is neither an easy nor a natural social arrangement. It has to be nursed very carefully and constantly guarded against attacks from passions, such as those of racism and ethnicity, which are much more intrinsic in human beings all over the world. Likewise, dictatorships and monarchies are again not so difficult to put in place. Democracy is the most demanding and unnatural of all social arrangements.