The Altars of Constructs

Sanat Mohanty

The Altars

Constructs, as I see them, are organizations, institutions, contracts, laws and ideas that have become real enough to bind us, or to coerce certain kinds of behavior out of communities and out of individuals in communities. They bind our thoughts, actions and behavior in a way that alternatives seem taboo, unnatural or impossible. As I perceive today, constructs have become more real than blood and bones, than lives, than forests, than flora and fauna, than clean water and air. They have become the "true world"1  – more real than the "apparent world", the perceived world. Our motives for action, measures of how we are doing and what we are doing – in fact our very lives – are all defined within the frameworks of these constructs.

Consider this: if you were told that a woman was stripped in public, paraded nude in front of a community and then raped, you would be outraged. So would any one else. However, this has happened in streets across the world. This and other such incidents where humans have been humiliated in the extreme. And yet humans have acted thus, and other humans have stood by and watched. Somehow, it became all right for that society to perpetrate such an action because that person was a black, a dalit, a gypsy, or allegedly a witch. Really, that is what a construct can do. Justify inhuman behavior.

For the sake of a construct called the nation you can now kill, you can justify decimating a civilization. For the sake of a religion you can rape, burn and plunder. For the sake of race you can hang a man or tie him to a van and drag him around town. For the sake of a construct called national security, you can expose thousands to radioactivity. For the sake of development, you can throw millions out of their houses, their lands, snatch their resources and throw them on the streets. For the sake of profitability in a free market economy, people can be pushed into unemployment and despair. These are the sacrifices that are made on the altars of constructs every day. Actions that you or I would not condone under any circumstance, are accepted by us as inevitable since we have been indoctrinated to believe in the value of certain constructs.

Somehow, the premise is that development, the free market economy, the nation state and profitability (and many others) are divine edicts, natural laws like gravity perhaps, that have to be followed. It perturbs me to see that somehow ideas of humans – constructs, if you will – have been made more real than the flesh and blood of humans, more real than the environment around us, more real than the flora and fauna; that somehow the former are more inviolable than the latter.

In the dialogue on learning societies, it is of interest then to analyze these constructs, how they are ascribed as more real than the "apparent" world and how they reinforce this reality. It is of importance to understand how a state of society is designed to exist where such ideas that cause the destruction of communities and ecologies are the core and everything else (people, communities, environment) must fit in around these rather than the other way around. It is imperative that we analyze how constructs, set up so that humans may live better, became more important than the humans themselves.

 

 

Setting up the Sacrifices

Constructs are insidious. They creep into your daily life. You begin to call someone a junglee (uncivilized in Hindi) or Negro, or some other term that denigrates him or her. Soon, they are not humans anymore. They are junglees or Niggers – subhumans. Your language has made you (and them) believe thus. And now, you are desensitized to humiliations heaped upon them. Similarly, to gas the Jews, they first had to be dehumanized. Thus, the propaganda machine defined them as sub-Aryan, in a sense sub-human. The same was true in the colonies that Europe controlled. The locals were uncivilized, inferior to the Europeans and hence could be decimated. The conceptualization of such a construct allowed for the desensitization that led to extreme humiliation of large communities; that is how constructs work. They work by conceptualizing, then justifying and finally necessitating injustice.

Constructs – the monsters among ideas – take on lives of their own as they grow. And yet we cannot live without them, can we? We depend on others – those who live with us and hence in the networks that bind these relationships, in the organizations within which we interact or collaborate, and in the structures such as the nation or a province that provide us some security and might help with the welfare of its citizens. We also depend on those who came before us, on their ideas and experiments that they helped evolve and that we use today – money, trade, social customs and rituals, religions, philosophies and organizations. These constructs have provided the continuum in time for societies. It is through these ideas, organizations, and structures that generations relate to their pasts. It is also through these constructs that individuals and communities find meaning in their lives (or are told what their existence means to the world around them – for good or for bad). Such constructs help build the worldviews of individuals and communities, guiding them towards the true world. I cannot envisage a community – any community – living outside the influence of any constructs. So, what am I raising all this hoopla for?

I am not arguing against ideas per se, but the form of an idea that takes a life of its own and can transmogrify from being an abstract – guidelines, perhaps – of how we might live or interact or collaborate to being the reality of living, laws of nature, entities that cannot be violated even at the cost of flesh and blood. Often constructs begin as innocuous thoughts that are useful to the community. Constructs are formed and tested in specific contexts. Some constructs may serve a purpose in that specific context and thus grow strong. Yet, when the context changes the construct that it engendered still remains. The justification for its existence no longer remains and yet the construct stays on – now serving the vested interests of its patrons rather than being useful to a community. The development of constructs happen as follows:

How the natives volunteered sacrifices at the Altars of the Constructs

1. For the welfare of the people.

(The original premise or slogan for every construct that needed support. Some constructs – such as kingship or religion – had divine injunctions and did not need popular support directly. Yet they needed absence of rebellion for sustenance or mass following for popularity.)

2. Strong constructs (such as free trade, nation-state, corporations, religious indoctrination, social structures) are needed for the welfare of the people.

(The original statement by the patrons – notice the progression)

3. Strong constructs are needed (for the welfare of the people).

(An aside to be used when absolutely needed. Any opposition to a construct then, automatically becomes anti-people. The patrons are still equivocating.)

4. Strong constructs are needed.

(The first part has become so deeply ingrained that the second part need not be used anymore. The patrons do not even have to equivocate. Opposition can be beaten down without recourse to it being anti-people. It is enough for it to be anti-construct – such as anti-national or anti-development – to be beaten down. Once the people are trained with constructs of a certain kind, a new construct can begin its life right here. No further need for the welfare of people. What people? Constructs have already made them uncivilized, untouchables, Negroes, gays, gypsies, sub-human, animals, dispensable.)

5. Strong constructs are needed (even at the expense of the welfare of people).

(The patrons hesitate on the aside, saying it only when pushed to. Thus, economic analysis shows that we cannot treat these radioactive pollutants and they must be dumped – even if they affect people. The argument is based on the reality of economic analysis, which has now taken on connotations more real than the life of people.)

6. We are willing to sacrifice the welfare of the (other) people so that strong constructs can be built.

(The patrons need not speak. The disciples have been found and indoctrinated. They readily find "others" to sacrifice at the altar of the constructs. The gods must be strengthened. The disciples rush to find sacrifices at the altars.)

In the world we live in, there are a number of monsters – gods, I mean. Please! I mean no disrespect, but let me refer to them as constructs. A couple of centuries ago, the head god was religious construct. His altar was most bloodied. But that was the dark ages. During the period of enlightenment, the Construct of Science and Technology took over. His altar is most bloodied these days. With him are his close colleagues and confidantes – Construct of Economy, and Construct of Politics. Though, for all outward appearances, while the construct of science and technology is the head, it is the construct of economy that pulls the strings. The construct of economy has manifestations as industry, production and trade.

I have assigned the masculine gender to the gods – it is intentional. There are a few female gods but they are restricted to "minor portfolios."

 

 

The Triumvirate

The religious construct grew out of ideas trying to answer questions of humans’ relationship with nature and the cosmos. The new ideas of religion professed a release from the pain, the suffering and the hardships of natural living. The premise used (for modern religions) was that humans were above animals. That immediately changed the relationship between humans and the rest of the world. From being cohabitants, they became masters of the world. It suddenly allowed humans to flout all the rules of nature. It further strengthened the right to private ownership of nature. If you cohabit with other entities, you cannot own them. You can own them only if you are in some ways superior to them. It also implied that you could master nature, attempt to change her and control her. In effect, humans could own and manipulate nature by divine injunction.2  This superiority of men was further strengthened by the construction of an entity – the creator – that was like man. The connection of this construct to power structures becomes even clearer in that in some religions, all the manifestations of this entity were male. Once the construct of a creator was established, havoc was ready to be wreaked on the Earth.3  This allowed one community to know divine secrets that others did not and hence assumed the power to ravage. Thus, in India, it was possible for Brahmins to oppress and exploit the lower castes based on their access to this special knowledge and their self-proclaimed greater accessibility to the divine. Their special status allowed them to dehumanize "lower castes." In effect, it justified treating "other" people as less than equal.

Meyer Amschel Rothschild, the man who founded the Rothschild empire, once said, "Give me control of a nation’s currency and I care not who makes the laws." Once the food was put under lock and key (figuratively, at least), the construct of ownership or property was born. The idea of ownership seems natural to us today – the result of an indoctrination that has played itself since birth. Yet, it could not have been more unnatural for the early communities than ownership of water or air is for us today. Private ownership must have been a difficult idea to digest because there was no precedence. Besides, where did the right of ownership come from? Eventually, might defines ownership.4  Perhaps the grower owns the food. But how does the grower own the land? Perhaps the person who fills a bucket of water owns the right to use that water. However, does s/he own the right to the river? Yet, those who gained from private ownership must have seen the advantage of such a concept rather quickly. The owners of the land probably stopped growing but were able to "hire" others to grow. Once the concept of private ownership became embedded in a culture, anything could be owned. Forests, mines, pastures, fields were all owned. Other animals could be owned as well. Very soon, other humans could be owned as well. The Construct of Property drives everything today. It is the basis of today’s economy.

An example of the development of such a construct is the ownership of water. The irrigation minister in Rajasthan claimed that every drop of rain in a certain region belongs to the irrigation ministry. Today, in India, the Government wants to claim ownership of water, which can then be leased to private entities. Most of us will agree that that which is part of nature cannot be owned – it can be only used as a public resource. How can private entities own water that flows freely on the Earth or falls on it? Such an idea may seem ridiculous today. However, unless we are careful, the idea will seep into us and we will accept it as natural. The implication of such an idea will be disastrous. People cannot take water from a river; they cannot dig a well without paying user fees to some private entity.

There is a strong correlation between the mode of food "attainment" (or of any resource) and leadership. In the communities of the indigenous people that continued to hunt and gather, the leader had little power. Sometimes the leadership was of elders. The first republics were of tribal origin.5  Leadership was not necessarily hereditary. On the other hand, with the agriculturalists, the power became more centralized. The ownership of nature led to such a centralized structure. The divine was invoked to claim the right of kingship over the people. The construct of the creator was co-opted by political forces to provide divine injunction of leadership. Suddenly, this unknown creator was able to force thousands of people to follow one man, sacrifice their work, their bodies and their lives for this one man. The divine injunction in cahoots with the political structure allowed for all kinds of marginalization – slavery, class divisions and racism. You now had this divine voice telling some people that they could control others and force others to behave in a certain way. Once the king had claimed to be of divine descent, hereditary leadership followed. In fact, the kings could now demand whatever they pleased from their citizens by divine right. Thus, centralization of power led to further centralization of resources. The real influence of common people over decision-making had become very small. Coups or revolts, when they happened were not planned or executed by the general population of the kingdom but by others close enough to the center of power.

Notice how constructs of private ownership, hierarchy of power and a religion to provide salvation reinforced each other. This hypothesis is further strengthened by the fact that the economic and religious hierarchies in early civilization were the same. Those who had become powerful by patronizing other constructs (religious or political) collaborated.6

 

 

A Foundation on Negatives

Many of these constructs continue to exist based on elements of negativity – of manufactured scarcity – and manipulation of mass insecurity that the constructs claim to relieve.7 In other words, since the construct claimed to base itself on the welfare of the people, the patrons argue that the absence of the construct will result in people being less fulfilled. For example, highly polluting industries, or infrastructures that have destroyed large communities and ecological regions have been built in the name of development. Fear of what would happen in the "absence" of development or arguments like "do you want to live by hunting-gathering?" have minimized critical analysis of activities carried out as part of development.

In case of religion, Christianity (or any other religion) claimed to be the only path to salvation – salvation being the solution to this manufactured concept that humans are imperfect and need to reach a state of perfection. One set of concepts that came out of this construct was the triad of hell, salvation and morality. Bertrand Russell identified fear as the basis of religion. This fear is embodied in an afterlife in hell by some beliefs, in poorly understood phenomena of plague, drought and disease in other communities and in a general fear of insecurity in most. Subsequently, a need for a patronizing figure that can take care of you is created. Thus, religion in certain forms actually fulfills a need – in this case, the relief from fear of the unknown – that itself is artificially produced and based on negative emotions. If hell was the proverbial stick, then an afterlife in heaven, some form of salvation or general feeling of safety was the carrot. Even this positive is based on the fear of binary results: if you do not get the carrot, you will get the stick. The carrot and stick are then used to keep society in order and influence them to behave in a certain way. Such behavior patterns have become the basis of morals of a community. The acceptable behavior patterns in any society consist of those that maintain the status quo of the dominant groups and buttress the hierarchies that are extant. These form the "right" ways of doing things, the good. Behavior that disrupts such norms becomes evil, bad, or wrong.

The constructs have based their strength on negative concepts, on the "economy of scarcity", and on the generation and control of fear. Some have called it the commodification of fear. The most obvious example is possibly the insurance industry. Fear is made into a commodity and you are charged for a service that assuages it. The more you fear, the more you are charged. Of course, the sellers of this service do everything they need to heighten your fear and maintain it so that they can provide you their service.

Other institutions are also in the business of creating such fear, ensuring that the cause of the fear will exist forever, and then showing how they can keep us safe. The military (which tells us that an external enemy is out to get us) and certain political establishments (which tell us that internal enemies are in the form of other communities) are examples. Similarly, the medical community is increasingly beginning to make a business of heightening our insecurities about our health and then telling us how it can take care of us. It is indeed ironic that in an age where a certain class of humans perhaps enjoy a quality of physical health like never before, we are perhaps most paranoid about it. In the same way, the economy runs by heightening our needs and making us feel insecure in the absence of material goods and then providing us with these goods. Every day, we are made insecure about how our lives are value-less in the absence of certain products and how our lives will be fulfilled only by acquiring these. The entire set of dominant constructs is thus based on activities that accentuate the negative emotions of the civilization, forming a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Another example is the categorization of the "uneducated" – those that do not know. This is a categorization of those sections of society that have not been through a certain assembly-line process of indoctrination, as defined by a specific system of schooling. All the knowledge that these people have (or had) is nullified. Their ways of knowing have been declared illegitimate. This again cements the hierarchy by legitimizing the knowledge (expertise) of those in power while making the knowledge of others trivial. When all other ways of knowing, all other variants of learning, have been discredited and illegitimized, diverse members of society are forced to go through a single process of indoctrination. In fact, the more rigorous the indoctrination, the more is the value that is attached. So, we see a society that has been legitimately indoctrinated – in different ways – to depend on the dominant political, religious and economic constructs.

 

 

The Role of Indoctrination

Education, today, is an important tool for the sustenance of constructs. It teaches people their place in society. It indoctrinates them about their worldview and what their expectation from life should be. Education and indoctrination8  bring a certain set of values, morals of right and wrong, ideals as to how one should behave with others from different classes, worldviews of what individuals at different stations in life might expect. Children are "taught" the necessities and the virtues of the nation-state, the regional uniqueness, religious dogmas, and all other constructs, that give the children a certain worldview that is aligned with the interests of the political, religious and economic constructs. It serves to train individuals to fit the needs of religious, scientific, economic and political constructs. It validates the institutions – social, religious and economic – that keep people in their place. Education simply takes the color of the dominant "-ism."

Indoctrination occurs in a large number of ways; often subtly, sometimes less so. It permeates all areas of life. The lyrics of songs indoctrinate. Love, the value of heroism and the ability to kill the enemy, the need to follow social rituals and structures, obedience to your elders (and accordingly the constructs that they are indoctrinated with), acceptance of your husband as your superior,9 virtue in servility (for women), and the right of those with authority, are all made virtuous in songs, folk tales and mythologies. I do not claim that songs, folk tales or myths always indoctrinate. They do not when they are based on a variety of ideas. They do not when alternative ideas, different perspectives of how we live, how we relate to each other and to nature and our own stations in life are allowed to exist.

Ironically, indoctrination has perhaps never been as intense or as extensive as today. With the tools of mass communication, the satellite and the television, millions of people can be assimilated into a dominant construct. Where earlier, a certain message was heard by thousands of people, now it is hear by millions if not a billion of people. Given this reach by a single set of channels of dissemination, the dominant economic and political constructs have almost complete control over these channels. One index is that less than half a dozen corporations have almost complete control of mainstream media in the United States.

A dominant construct can now set the issues that people think about and keep others off the radar screen. It can validate certain "-isms" (capitalism or consumerism) and reject others (socialism). It can make certain questions unacceptable. It can control the emotions of the masses and direct those emotions. This was perhaps best exemplified by the manner in which television in the USA portrayed the destruction of the two buildings in New York on September 11th, 2002 and the retaliation that followed. Communities across nations were given a single, politically designed perspective of the events. Public sentiment was measured and controlled through the television.

This has profound implications for democracy since a democracy is not about who gets to vote. It is, more importantly, about the choices and who gets to pick the choices on which voting is carried out. By controlling the choices, the dominant constructs have subverted real democracy. At the surface, however, this game of voting ensures that a facade of freedom and democracy is maintained.

 

 

Constructs and Freedom

The world has gone from a patchwork of cultures to almost a monolith. Today the situation is such that there is (almost) only one right way of growth, one right way of governance, one right way to acquire and use knowledge, one right way to learn, one right belief, one right way to build relationships, one right way to live. In the post September 11th world, the idea of "one right way" has been strengthened by statements such as "if you are not with us, you are against us." The only right way to live is as we live and the only right belief is ours. The global diversity that existed in the form of competing political beliefs, understandings of growth, or knowledge bases has been eroded. The result has been a drastic reduction in freedom, in global choices of lifestyles. This might seem contrary to what is apparent. The popular media and the apparent world would have us believe that there is more freedom. We can speak more freely, believe in different religions, travel more easily, and have greater choice in what we buy.

The loss in choices is manifested in the negation of nomadic lifestyles or subsistence economies as feasible ways living. The experts have pooh-poohed ideas of self-sufficiency, of alternative medicine or of empirical forms of knowledge (such as an understanding of nature, or agriculture, or technologies that is gained from the collective experiences of communities rather than mechanistic logic). Increasingly, a centralized structure of policy formulation and globalization has resulted in elimination of these knowledge bases or styles of life as valid choices. Societies resisting consumerism have been labeled as "backward" and have been marginalized. Communities that have tried to hold on to these values have been steamrolled under the rhetoric of development, integration with the mainstream and greater scientific and economic benefits. Where they still exist are regions where the centralized policy making machinery has been slow to reach or as esoteric social experiments.

Any meaningful conception of a learning society has to include space for communities with different values, or different perspectives of development, welfare or lifestyles. There has to be space for communities that do not follow the western model of acquiring knowledge. There has to be space for communities who do not believe that ideas and discoveries are private properties that belong to any entity. There has to be space for communities who do not believe in today’s dominant way of family and relationships, or the "civilized" society’s understanding of marriage. Communities, who do not see nature as "resources" to be brutally exploited, must be respected and free to co-exist. It must not become a necessity to indoctrinate them under the guise of education or to deliver them to salvation. In fact, any such attempt springs from a basic disrespect for other ideologies. In a truly free and just world, any group of people should not be – cannot be – displaced, ravaged, decimated under any justification. No arguments – whether based on economics, ideologies of salvation or scientific myopism – can justify the destruction of other communities.

These "other" ideas serve to remind us that it is not obvious that there exists only one worldview. They keep highlighting to us that the key is equality and justice on earth, not the worldview. They provide various worldviews that we can use to understand events that happen around us. It is in this scenario that an act of stripping and burning a woman is not justified by claims that she is a witch, or that she belongs to a different class but is understood to be a heinous act. Killing Jews, or Negroes, or any ‘other’ can only be justified by Nazism, racism, or any other "-ism" that is meant to do just that. It is only when these "-isms" have other ideas challenging them – at an individual level and collective level – can we hope for a just and free humanity. For the sake of humanity, the gods of these constructs must be destroyed so that the sacrifices at their altars may end.

 

 

The End of Sacrifices

We first need to identify the conditions necessary for the existence of a large set of "others." We have seen that constructs are born as norms and ideas within the framework of relationships between humans and of relationships between humans and the environment in which they live. Such norms relate to protocols that help humans organize around resources, resolve conflicts, share responsibilities, etc. This is true for norms and ideas in social, political, religious and economic frameworks. The norms and ideas (some of which progress into constructs) will be acceptable to the community only if they lie within the worldview of that community.

In a non-hegemonic community, then, ideas and norms will be based on the shared commonality of the entire community. In a hegemonic community, it will be based on the worldview of the group that is powerful. The rest will be forced by various means to accept it as natural. In fact, they may have been indoctrinated to accept it as natural. In either case, it is the shared commonality of the community (or part of it) that allows for the acceptance of certain ideas. This shared commonality may be based on shared geography, history, culture, environment, etc. Clearly, the greater the shared commonality, the richer is the spectrum of acceptable ideas that evolve.10 The more the community interacts and shares, the greater is the space within the community to discuss conflicts, share, negotiate and evolve ideas and responsibilities and organize in different ways. In such a situation, the community will organize to take up various social, political and economic activities together in a fashion that they know suits them all.

Conversely, communities with little shared commonality will interact much less. In such situations, community members define the minimum commonality that is required for the community to live together. Since significant interactions at the community level are necessary for the community to fulfill its responsibilities, institutions will be created to perform these responsibilities, thus allowing members to reduce interactions and conflicts. The upshot of the creation of such institutions is that the community forfeits its rights and responsibilities. Thus institutions, rather than community members, take care of learning, of security, of distribution of goods, of health, of entertainment, etc.

For example, smaller communities or communities with a long history and large shared commonalities often tackle new problems by getting together or organizing. Most urban communities that usually have a large turnover rate, with short histories, have little commonality in tradition or ties. These urban communities are not able to handle new problems cohesively. Given that there are few shared commonalities, they often try to forge commonality in terms of religious beliefs, or economic class divisions. However, most responsibilities that need to be fulfilled are contracted out to institutions (police, schools, waste disposal units, etc). In contrast, most rural communities, even today, will solve most of their conflicts within the community. The situation in the urban scenario gets even more dangerous since the identities of shared commonalities (that have been torn away) are often replaced by identities of dogmatic ideologies, such as those which are based on religion. In this context, it might be pointed out that if one leaves aside the riots during the partition of India, communal riots have largely occurred in urban regions.11

Of course, one can argue that the lack of strong communities might be preferable by claiming that the institutions are impartial and strong biases within the communities may force decisions to be made in a way that oppress weaker communities. For one, institutions are not always impartial. More importantly, institutions may make decisions based on a value system that is completely in conflict with the value system of the community and this decision is then thrust on the community. Besides, the problem of oppression should be resolved not by an external agency thrusting solutions into a community but by openness within the community that allows "weaker" sections of the community to look outside and find that there isn’t just one worldview, that they need not be oppressed.

The presence of strong community interactions with large shared commonalities and openness to new ideas that come from within the community or from interactions with other communities are necessary for a rich nursery of new ideas. Unfortunately, this mix of openness and large shared commonality is absent from most of our communities today. Increasing economic liberalization is forcing break up of a large number of communities.12 Most communities in urban regions have become transitory. Even rural communities are being destroyed by migration and displacement. This impacts the shared commonalities of these communities. A decrease in the shared commonality has implied that conflicts can be less effectively resolved within the community or the community can be less effectively organized to deal with problems. Since the members of the community do not have a common worldview, solutions are less easily acceptable to the community as a whole. As a result, greater power is being given to institutions that have formulated standardized solutions – that often do not suit the particular sensitivities of communities and result in the strengthening of centralized systems and the making of hegemonic constructs. Thus, schools control people; people do not control schools. Economies control people; people do not control economies. Police control people; people do not control the police. Banks control people; people do not control the banks. Political systems control people; people hardly control these political institutions.

Vinoba Bhave put it well when he claimed that in today’s society we have leased out our rights over how we live to various institutions – we pay them taxes so that they may take care of those ‘small details’. We have contracted out our rights so that we may shirk our responsibilities. Having contracted out our responsibilities, we find it difficult to get our rights back.13 We have effectively contracted out our democracy. We do not trust politicians – yet we let them sign treaties and make policies that affect our lives, our ability to seek employment, learn, produce and distribute. We cannot be hassled, we claim, by worrying about policies and institutions. We seem to have decided that we would rather just follow the dominant constructs and not have to spend too much effort questioning what these constructs stand for and analyzing alternatives that may exist. If that implies that some are sacrificed at the altar; that is all right. We would rather look away. We claim that we have no time for political nonsense – we have to spend our time earning for ourselves and taking care of our families. We work to provide our children the best schools we can afford. Yet, we do not have the time to worry about policies that will affect them more significantly than any of the learning opportunities we can provide for them.

In such a situation, we have to make a greater effort in strengthening our communities by increasing our shared commonalities. We also have to take back power over our lives from the institutions. In doing so, we in fact increase possibilities of finding solutions that are suited specifically to the problems of our community.

As a community, how and what we learn is perhaps most important to us. Today, we have contracted out to some board of education this responsibility that we have to ourselves. As a result, learning has become trapped within the walls of some buildings and proceeds as defined by some bureaucrat who has no idea of what each community needs. As a community, we could at first decide on the kinds of things we should learn. This would be different for an agricultural community, a fishing community, a trading community and a technological community. This would not just include skills but also the learning of policies, of laws, of other things that affect how we live. We could also decide how we learn best. Do we learn best when we sit on benches in a room being lectured to or do we learn better when we discuss things informally, when we watch a play, or create things with our hands? We need to find out what are the resources we need to aid our learning – libraries, radio, Internet, nature, people.

Creating a learning society also demands that we re-engage with several other responsibilities that we have deferred. For example, as a community, we would become responsible for the waste we produced. Today, we have contracted out this responsibility to private entities. It is important (for the health of our own community as well as other communities) that we question the source and production of the waste as well as what we do with it. In an interesting experiment in Chennai, Tamil Nadu (India), a large number of communities have made their localities cleaner and healthier by taking responsibility for the waste they generate.14 In fact, there are even settlements aiming to become Zero Waste communities.

Other areas of responsibility include health, security, justice, and economy. Do we, as a community, trust health companies that are run on policies based on numbers and profit? Or do we want to take responsibility for our own health? In the same vein, do we want our security to depend on an external agency that is notorious for corruption, and for terrorizing the community? Or do we want to take care of internal conflicts and strife by forming watch-groups of different kinds, for example? Do we want our lives and our economy to be run by entities that have no interest in our communities or in us? In a radical change, a number of communities in the United States pulled out of the national economy during the years of depression and developed their own local currency as a way of living through those unstable years. Even today, there are communities around the world – USA, Germany and even India – who have part of the communities economy based on local currencies.15 This ensures that big businesses do not constantly take money out of the community and that international problems in trade do not affect the community too adversely. It is a cooperative mode of economy and helps to positively influence community ties.

It is through such processes that we begin to take charge of the responsibilities we have to ourselves. We begin to reduce the role of institutions in our lives and find the space to figure out ways we can find solutions and methods that work best for our community. We begin to truly govern ourselves. And, in the process, we start to strengthen other narratives which challenge dominant constructs. In addition, the fulfillment of our responsibilities demand interaction and thus increase shared commonality; hence, growing the overall strength and confidence of the community. Solving its problems and fulfilling its responsibilities will require the community to stay open to new ideas. Given the increasing ease of information flow and the ability to connect globally, there is a potential for new kinds of openness to emerge. With this, comes a greater possibility for solidarity and the reduction of oppression. We have the potential, as never before, to form learning societies where the hegemonic dominance of inhuman constructs can be ended.

 

ENDNOTES

1 The world that philosophers say is hidden, is ‘beyond what we perceive’, that which we must aspire to. It is supposed to be the abstract world, subtler than the world of bricks and stones. It is supposed to bring meaning to why we exist and why we must behave in a certain way, etc. It is a world that defines the underlying principles of why things are the way they are.

2 This was the same argument used by the European slave traders and colonists. Constructs were built such that it was their duty to civilize the pagans, to bring salvation on to them. The administrative and the religious patronage were aligned and economic and environmental ravage was unleashed.

3 Bertrand Russell. 1957. Why I am not a Christian and Other Essays. New York:Simon and Schuster.

4 As we have attempted to become more civilized, we have tried to show that strength is not everything; that we believe in justice, equality and such. In reality, however, private ownership is based on power and directly contradicts all such appearances of equality, et al. In the absence of power, private ownership is not possible.

5 In fact, the tribal confederacy provided a viable and strong leadership. There is evidence that the founding fathers of the American Union modeled parts of the federal structure on the confederate structure of certain Native American groups.

6 The construct of science and technology has become a strong force as well. The hegemony of this construct is described in published works; see, for example, Ashis Nandy. 1998. Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

7 Ivan Illich. 1971. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row.

8 Ideally, education and indoctrination are different terms. The former would require active participation, control and critique of the content and the style by the one being educated. The latter requires the individual to accept and simply absorb the contents. Education, as practiced and propagated today, is indoctrination.

9 Without these constructs – as seen in more egalitarian communities – the woman did not lose her independence in such a fashion. Women often had a lot more freedom to marry, divorce and remarry – i.e. change partners (as did men) in communities that traditionally did not value private property (and where the woman herself was never thought of as property).

10 I will distinguish between shared commonalities that develop out of living and doing things together and ideologies defined here as a body of doctrines or dogmas.

11 Gyanendra Pandey. 1990. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

12 Without addressing economic liberalization and the breakup of communities, it is difficult to resist hegemonic constructs. Yet, even as we work on the front of economic liberalization, we must find ways of strengthening our communities. That cannot wait.

13 See the chapter entitled, "Contract and Birthright" in Sheldon Wolin, Presence of the Past. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

14 See <www.exnora.org>, or write to Exnora at 42 Giriappa Road, T. Nagar, Chennai, 600017, India.

15 See, for example <www.transaction.net/money/>.

 

 

About the Author

Sanat Mohanty <sanat_mohanty@hotmail.com> is a scientist currently living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Besides trying to question why we live the way we do and dream of what it might be otherwise, he is involved in a number of initiatives to explore such alternatives, including the Independent Media Movement <www.indymedia.org>. He brings some of these ideas to public discussion through articles, community-theater and film. Sanat is also associated with Association for India’s Development <www.aidindia.org>.