Why do extremes unsettle our comfortable middle ground?

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,


That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,


How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,


Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you


From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en


Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;


Expose thyself to feel  what wretches feel,


That thou mayst shake the superflux to them


And show the heavens more just.

(Shakespeare, King Lear)




You may recall that these words are spoken by Lear as he is caught in a storm on a heath, having been denied refuge by the daughters whom he loved to distraction. Although, in his erstwhile feudal ways.


Could there be a more eloquently acute talisman for anyone in power who professes to be doing politics not to enrich the already enriched but the dregs of the realm?


You may have noticed that Lear’s painful realization of misery falls into two conceptual concerns: one, what hope have the "naked wretches" against the storms of dispossession, given their "houseless heads and unfed sides" and their "looped and windowed raggedness" (some two hundred Indians have already died from the current cold wave in north India for lack of food, shelter, and clothing), followed by his agonized self-reproach at having "ta’en too little care of this!"


And, following from those admissions, the invocation to "pomp" (a metaphor for all varieties of self-absorbed blindness born of authority) to "take physic" (medicine remedying that blindness) and "expose thyself to feel what wretches feel" as a morally enabling resolve to disgorge themselves of "superflux" (the manifold trappings of acquisitive greed) and thereby be better placed to implement god’s just purposes.




So why am I suddenly taken with this context in Lear’s movement from hauteur, complacence, imperial noblesse towards a revulsion against self-absorption born of endowments, and towards empathy with those who have been at the receiving end of that self-absorption?


Reading what our well-intentioned prime minister said in his address the other day to Speakers of sundry parliaments from the Commonwealth countries, the Bard sprang to my mind, as he so often does in so many contemporary contexts.


To wit, the otherwise piety-ridden Manmohan Singh expressed deep apprehension at the vile attempts of some "extremists" to cause unacceptable imbalances and dethronements in the orderly project of the peaceful enhancement of  mainline developmental concerns, piloted no doubt by men in power who know best.


So it struck me, not for the first time, how little a part of that enhancement seemed, despite politic pronouncements from time to time, meant to touch the lives of the "poor naked wretches" of whom India still comprises some two thirds of its population.


It struck me that none of those politic pronouncements ever carry the agonized charge of Lear’s "O, I have taken too little care of this!" Or the least resolve to "take physic"   inorder to "feel what wretches feel."


It also struck me how negligible a recognition obtains in our power structure of the "extreme" nature of the mainline model of development so dear to our prime minister, since what else but "extreme" would you call a model that fattens the fat all the time and impoverishes the impoverished all the time as well? For example, just today’s bitter news in India: sugar will now sell at Rs.50/- a kilogram! So no longer even the comfort of that warm and sweet cup of tea for some 70 or more percent of Indians as the cold solidifies into needles and pins.


I also recalled the defence that has often been proferred by those who measure progress in terms of the gross national product, namely, that "extreme" conditions (drought, flood, global warming, market crashes) call for "extreme" measures on behalf of those in charge. Yet, why that same argument may not extend to "extreme" recourses taken by the "naked wretches" in India’s orphaned "hinterlands" I do not know. As Mr.Podsnap might do in Dickens’ magnificent novel about the workings and consequences of finance capitalism at its point of inauguration in the middle of the nineteenth century, such questions are simply not to be admitted even if such refusals bore holes in the official logic itself.


It is easily conceded by the establishment that a team of explorers sent to the ant-arctic’s "extreme" conditions must be suitably equipped with clothing and other wherewithal that may seem awful and outré in ordinary circumstance, but that is needed in those "extreme" conditions for survival. Or, that a party that goes bear hunting must be equally equipped for the "extreme" exigencies that might surely offer themselves.  Do recall that some two decades ago a plane crashed into the Andes mountains. For two whole weeks the survivors had no morsel. And then it was that their "extreme" condition led them to feed off the passengers who lay dead in the ice. 


Thus, "extreme" responses, after all, do imply "extreme" aggravations. It is a comfort yet that millions of Indians who find little or nothing to eat for many months do not yet eat the dead, but make do with grass, or leather, although sometimes carcases of dead animals as well. 


Yet it is not conceded that "naked wretches" with "houseless heads and unfed sides" and "looped and windowed raggedness"—extreme conditions by anyone’s reckoning one would think—might be equally justified in taking recourse to "extreme" measures for survival. Don’t know why. 


Or why it is that those who admire the anti-establishment rebel heroes in Bollywood movies (whom they also often honour on stage) who are often shown to liquidate the policeman, the politician, the businessman, the judge in a rage against injustice in extreme disregard of the sanctities of the "system" feel great revulsion when those cinematic enactments of "extreme" careers surface in the actual rough and tumble of everyday life. Don’t know why. Why is it that we find all those bravados "true to life’s conditions" but bring to bear every unjust chicanery to quell such bravados when they are attempted off screen?


At such times it is not unusual to be told how, after all, that "our basest beggars are, in their poorest things, superfluous" (Lear again). Things are hardly as bad, we say, as the radical rabble rousers would have us believe.




Every regime that seeks at bottom to consolidate the endowed middle ground of the power structure and the polity nevertheless also, in a democracy, requires popular legitimation every now and then. Thank democracy for that much, even if those legitimations remain illusory and perfunctory (no government in India, except once since 1950 has ruled with a majority mandate yet.)


Thus it is that such projects as the Indian "National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme" come into being to ameliorate the "extreme" pressures generated by the race for higher and higher capital accumulation, that race for the GDP which in capitalist societies defines status and prowess.


"Poor naked wretches" are thus handed out just enough to remain this side of absolute starvation, even as their labour is appropriated at a vast scale to raise infrastructures without which no GDP may grow any further. Marx and Marxist thinkers after Marx saw in this a strategy to do two things: reproduce the relations of production (wage labour to Capital) on a continuous basis, and simultaneously to claim to be addressing the "extreme" conditions in which the masses subsist, if at all.


But when you remember that the NREGS is now also christened the "Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme" another thought springs to mind.


Gandhi was once asked how one could determine the rightness or wrongness of a thought or course of action. Which is when he proferred his admirable talisman: "ask yourself if the thought or the course of action you contemplate would bear benefit to the most wretched face you may ever have seen; if the answer is yes, then you are on the right path."


It may well be argued that this precisely is the object behind the NREGS; and given the "extreme" conditions in which India’s "poor naked wretches" subsist from hour to hour, the argument may not be all too fallacious. The question to ask, though, is whether this objective informs the totality of India’s model of development—which is what Gandhi would have asked as well.


With the enlightened King of Bhutan, Gandhi might have said that human growth in the collective ought to be measured not as Gross Domestic Product but as Gross Domestic Happiness, a wholly different perspective about the purposes of wielding political power.


And Gandhi would have agreed that "extreme" forms of behaviour among the polity cannot be remedied until such time as the "extreme" nature of sectarian objectives we propose to ourselves as principles of "development" and governance do not yield to  systemic efforts to generate happiness in the widest commonality (in Wordworthian phrase). 


And he would have pointed out that no just dispensation denies the truth of an argument which it finds congenial in its own defence to others whom it disinherits.


Why then should not the piety-ridden chief executive of this land of many spiritualities (and what spirituality condones discrimination, injustice, or exploitation, not to speak of an unequal use of force to suppress "poor naked wretches"?) recognize the ethical and human superiority of the concept of Gross Domestic Happiness over Gross Domestic Product? And in doing so, revise his thesis about the many "extremisms" that beset the land?


He may recall that even the Congress party that led the movement against colonial oppression at one point found itself divided between what came to be called the "extremists" and the "moderates" (Jacobins and Girondists?). And the "extremists" were led by no less a figure than Bal Gangadhar Tilak. And it was their position that Constitutional methods or modalities alone could not be trusted to deliver freedom.


It is after all a poor argument for any state to make to the "poor naked wretches" that, however genuine or extreme your conditions, obedience alone defines your status as citizens. Think how often that argument has been made, and how often it has had to bite the dust.

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