Governance in South Asia: States and Robber Gangs

We have frequently reiterated the prominent features of South Asian societies – the social hierarchies, theologically sanctioned inequalities, and extensive economic deprivation. These have given rise to modes of governance dominated by patron-client formations as well as a monarchical ethos among both the rulers and the ruled. The passivity that comes from pervasive religiosity accounts for the slow pace of change in the overarching mai-baap culture. In this post I will describe the interaction of these features with the attempts at democratic governance and refer to a new book on European history to provide arguments useful for a critical analysis of  social and political developments in South Asia.

Transplanting a democratic super-structure onto a hierarchical and unequal sub-structure is like fitting a round cap on a square bottle. No matter how the cap is twisted, there are gaps from where the intrinsic tendencies of the soil escape and sprout. Repeated rearrangements only yield outcomes that are labeled ‘sham’ democracies by new patrons in the guise of democrats who restart the process promising ‘true’ democracy with yet another twist of the cap.

The experience is the same in virtually all post-colonial countries which vary only in the particularities of their sub-structures. Not surprisingly the mismatch with democratic governance is a constant feature of post-colonial countries ranging across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The distortions of democracy – praetorian here, kleptocratic there – are like the bizarre images in a hall of mirrors.

In South Asia, the manifestations of this mismatch are most obvious in Pakistan and least obvious in India where at least the formal appearance of democracy has remained untarnished. In terms of benefits flowing to the majority of the population, however, the results are not strikingly different. This is not to discount the importance of the democratic process – the hope is that at some point the adjustments in the shapes of the bottle and the cap would yield a fit good enough to yield a significant change in the status quo. However, this point still seems far away and the distortions of the moment can be readily discerned beneath the appearances.

Let me now support this thesis with the help of the review of a new book on European history. The book is The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government by Thomas N. Bisson (Princeton University Press). The review (Lords of ‘Pride and Plunder’) is by Robert J. Bartlett (New York Review of Books, June 24, 2010). In what follows, I will use selected excerpts from the review (excerpts in italics with emphasis added to critical points) to highlight some features of European history and its transition to democratic governance in order to shed light on the situation in South Asia. Hopefully, this would spark a discussion that would help improve our understanding of the nature of democracy and its interaction with governance in our region.

One of the major institutions of pre-industrial society, and one that makes it hard for people in the modern Western world fully to grasp the past, is lordship. Lordship means a personal bond, reciprocal but not equal, tying inferiors to superiors, bringing the latter a power over the former that modern democratic and egalitarian ideologies would abhor.

Of course modern Western societies are not communities of equals. Vast differences in wealth and access to education exist. But the world of lordship embraced and endorsed those differences. Hierarchy was a valued ideal, and some people considered themselves better born than others… The aristocrats (“aristocracy” means “rule by the best”) did not court their inferiors. They ruled them, and, if they were just and well disposed, they protected them and furthered their interests. This is what “good lordship” meant. Not all lords, of course, were good. Submission to cruel, arbitrary, or unhinged masters could mean misery or death. Much of the savagery of the French Revolution is to be explained by the fact that thousands of peasants had suffered just such a submission.

Lordship was a building block of most societies until relatively recently—serfdom was abolished in Russia only in 1861. Such societies were distinguished by extreme inequalities, made visible by costume and gestures, like bowing and doffing of hats, and often supported by belief in hereditary superiority and inferiority of blood. Collective groupings existed, but were not powerful, and conflict and ambition were channeled more by vertical than horizontal solidarities: retainers, servants, and other followers and dependants sought patronage from the great, not action alongside their peers. At the highest level, lesser aristocrats became followers of great aristocrats, who themselves would be competing for the ruler’s favor.

Bisson repeatedly uses the far from standard formulations “lord-king,” “lord-ruler,” and even “lord-archbishop” to convey the point that every ruler of this time was also a lord, a master of men, a patriarch of some kind, possessing his position as inheritance or property, rather than (or as well as) holding it as an office—indeed, he writes, “there is no sign that European people in the twelfth century thought of lordship and office as contrasting categories.”

Kings were lords, but also more than lords. Like the great barons, their power was patrimonial: that is, inherited, dynastic, based on ideas of property we might call “private.” A king’s kingdom was his in the same way that a baron’s landed estates were his. Transmission of power was through father-to-son inheritance, not by election. Hence marriages, births, and deaths were the great punctuating points of medieval politics, not caucuses and ballots. Yet a king was also more than just the greatest of the barons. Both the Church and a long secular tradition saw him as having special duties as a ruler, duties that might be called “public.”

This dualism of lordship and the state meant that medieval rulership had two distinct faces, which were close to being opposites: on the one hand, the grand promises made at coronation by kings and emperors, to ensure justice and the protection of the weak and the Church; on the other hand, the reality of being a warlord trained in mounted warfare, a leader of proud, hard men, used to wielding lethal edged weapons, and the center of a court full of envy, ambition, and suspicion.

The rulers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were trained in, and glorified, war, and expected to live off it, as well as off the tribute of a subjugated peasantry. If such rulers formed “the state” of their day, what are the implications? The state engages in violence; it takes away our property. How then does it differ from a criminal enterprise? This was a question that went back at least as far as Saint Augustine in the fourth century:

What are robber gangs, except little kingdoms? If their wickedness prospers, so that they set up fixed abodes, occupy cities and subjugate whole populations, they then can take the name of kingdom with impunity.

Augustine’s ponderings stem from the worrying doubt that states and kingdoms, indeed all lawfully constituted governments, are just the most successful of the robber gangs. This idea, that the state and the criminal gang are but larger and smaller versions of the same thing, was one recurrent strand in medieval thinking.

… in Bisson’s view, the people of that time lacked any understanding of the state as distinct from lordship, but also because there are certain criteria for government, as distinct from lordship, that the rulers did not meet. He identifies three: accountability, official conduct, and social purpose.

accountability means official responsibility, answerability… And true government is “the exercise of power for social purpose,” “social purpose” perhaps to be glossed here as “the common good.” It is the emergence of “official conduct aimed at social purpose”… that signals the shift of the balance from lordship to government in the thirteenth century.

Bisson adds to this traditional account by thinking deeply about the benefits and disadvantages of government. He is very aware of the inhumanity of the past he studies. He refers, with allusion to the words of the twelfth-century cleric John of Salisbury, to “hunter-lords.” John was talking about the way that aristocrats were obsessed with the chase, but we might apply his phrase in a wider sense. Since some theorists believe that human society is imprinted with its origins in hunting packs and the mentality of the pack, the predatory lordship of the central Middle Ages could be conceived of as just such a hunting pack—but its prey being fellow human beings, rather than beasts.

Confronting this world of hunter and hunted, Bisson is inspired by attractively humane impulses… And he looks for public, accountable, official remedies for suffering and oppression. He seems sympathetic to the idea that “power is rightly oriented towards the social needs of people.” “If ever government was the solution, not the problem,” he writes, “it was so for European peoples in the twelfth century.” Is the modern world so happy in its governments? Whether we should endure the violence of the state, as a defense against the yet more fearful violence of our neighbors, and whether there comes a point where the violence of the state must be resisted are great recurrent questions of moral and political life. The questions raised by Bisson’s book remain open.

There is a lot of material to think about here. We can see these patterns in South Asian society – lords, inequality, dynastic rule, the conflation of lordship and state, electoral promises divorced from reality, the politics of vertical solidarities, the lack of accountability, official conduct and social purpose, the violence against fellow human beings – in a word, the ‘state’ as the most successful of robber gangs.

These conditions pose for us, just as they did for twelfth century Europe, the great questions of moral and political life. It would be naïve to think that they have disappeared because we have somehow leapfrogged all the intermediate steps and arrived at the nirvana of democratic governance. Rather, we should look at the incredible distortions of democratic governance in the light of these persistent characteristics of South Asian societies. Only when we do so shall we realize that our struggle is not to conjure up a ‘true’ democracy from above but to remove from below the obstacles that stand in the way of democratic governance – the exercise of accountable power and official conduct for social purpose.



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