Freedom and dignity
Is the struggle for freedom, dignity, and the good life, in part the unending story of the struggle of man against man, to tame the rich and the powerful? Yes. The impersonal cruelties of nature may be accepted stoically as ‘fate’ but the tyrannies of other men do admit of rational resistance.
In retrospect, and on the broadest possible canvas, should history not be viewed as the continuing drama-serial of mankind’s collective struggle for freedom, dignity, and the good life?
Those fuzzy adjectives could do with a little elaboration. I use the word ‘freedom’ here in a sense wider than what we now understand as normal political freedoms. Instead, think more generally of freedom from want (e.g. hunger and disease), and the freedom that comes from taming such forces – including those of nature (such as gravity and the environment) – whose yoke we find restrictive and inimical to our being. Similarly, by ‘dignity’ I mean all those external cultural manifestations in the form of behaviour that spring from the personal search for giving meaning to one’s life. As for the ‘good life’, everyone has his own conception of what that might mean, in his own context.
This drama has its heroes, villains, and supporting cast. But it is unscripted and has neither a producer nor a director. As for the viewer, every generation has to cut, edit, and paste its own version of a coherent story (with frequent resort to flashbacks) from the immense store of frozen, jumbled, and often contradictory raw images bequeathed it.
The heroes of this saga are the men of wisdom, sagacity and foresight: the prophets of yore, lawgivers, poets, scientists, social and political philosophers and, yes, the odd sovereign or two. But the battlefields of their struggles are littered with the corpses of ideas that were, for all their shining allure, either found wanting under actual field conditions or failed the cruel long-term test of changing circumstance. As that canny revolutionary, Vladimir Ilyich, noted in a different context, “Mathematics may well tell us there is a fourth dimension, but the Czar can only be overthrown in threeÂ” (the message: forget theory; be practical).
Two permanent themes run right through the way and dominate this story of freedom and dignity. The first is our struggle to control nature. Here mankind has been spectacularly successful. The bounties from scientific and engineering endeavours have been sumptuous. Millions upon millions have thereby escaped that crushing and soul-destroying drudgery of endless and repetitive hard physical toil, formerly needed for sheer survival. Are ‘freedom’, ‘dignity’, and ‘the good life’ not largely about expanded choices?
The other permanent theme concerns the division of these dividends of nature. And here we have a problem. For, we are a social species, so hierarchies are inevitable. And where there are hierarchies there is politics. Economics and politics are conjoined Siamese twins, impossible to separate surgically.
But politics has its roots in human culture and human nature. And, while culture is a human construct, and therefore amenable to reason and change, we need to remember that human nature has been shaped by the irresistible workings of Darwinian evolution, and will therefore relentlessly assert itself in politics and economics wherever possible. Selfishness Â— so necessary for survival – is in our genes.
In support of this last observation, I offer you some well-known words from across the ages. In his account of the Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides, the father of history, records the withering retort of the Athenian envoy to the plea by the Melian delegation for an ‘honourable’ peace, thus: “The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must.” Shakespeare said much the same: “They well deserve to have who know the strongest and surest way to get.” And that famous British Marxist historian, E H Carr, has left us his own memorable aphorism: “History is the story of success” (and its variants, such as, “History is written by the victors”).
So, is the struggle for freedom, dignity, and the good life, in part the unending story of the struggle of man against man, to tame the rich and the powerful? Yes. The impersonal cruelties of nature may be accepted stoically as ‘fate’ but the tyrannies of other men do admit of rational resistance.
And here, thanks to developing culture, there is little doubt we have come a long way. But it is equally true that the end of this particular journey (if there ever will be an end) is still a long way away, and much further for some than others.
The question is, have we, through a trial and error process, absorbed some useful lessons that can aid a safer, speedier, less tension filled journey? On this dimly lit road we travel, have we learnt to recognise the potholes and how to circumvent them? Have we learnt not to succumb to the temptations readily available down the blind alleys and cul-de-sacs? Have we learnt to recognise and resist the siren songs inviting us to take shortcuts through the dark and bog-infested countryside?
Assuredly, some peoples have. Equally certainly, many have not. For example, the sagacious have learnt to appreciate the need, in modern-day complex, interdependent societies, to distinguish between the best possible policy and the best policy possible. Bold utopian ideas – and revolutions – Islamic or otherwise, may promise much, but will now deliver little; and usually at terrible cost even to those in whose name they are carried out. Incremental progress, even if it involves many a grubby temporary compromise, is a better option.
If society can never ever be anything but hierarchical – a reality endlessly confirmed by the long historical experience of mankind – then the lofty ideals of socialism (‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’) are impossible to implement in their entirety. We must reluctantly accept that there will always be a special breed of the rich and powerful, just as there will always be a relative underclass. The problem then becomes one of how to strike a balance: how to simultaneously curb the privileges of the former to within tolerable limits while continuously working towards gradually ameliorating the condition of the latter.
Relative poverty will always be there. But absolute poverty can be eliminated. Similarly, we cannot banish discrimination, envy, hatred, and conflict, but we can manage and control them and mitigate their effects. The softening and smoothing away of the rough edges of our natural inheritance is the function of that great social tool we call culture.
If there is one overwhelming lesson to be learnt from this story it is this: a soft, inclusive, and pluralistic culture is the fertile soil in which human societies have the best chance to flourish.
The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit munirattaullah.com
Source: Daily Times