State and society (Excerpt)

Tagore‟s „contrast concept‟, which helps us place his definition within the parameters of contemporary debates on nations and nationalism – as well as distinguish a distinctively Tagorean position – is „society‟. The nation is equated with the state as „the organised self-interest of a whole people, where it is least human and least spiritual‟.18 The nation-state is a „machinery of commerce and politics turn[ing] out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value‟.19 Society, by contrast, has „no ulterior purpose‟, but is rather „an end in itself‟. In short, „it is a spontaneous self expression of man as a social being. It is a natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideals of life in cooperation with one another‟.20 Tagore replaces the ideology of nation with the idea of swadeshi samaj, of „social relations that are not mechanical and impersonal but based on love and cooperation‟.21 The key characteristic of the modern Western nation is that it seeks to exercise power by regulating its populace (what Tagore would simply call „the people‟) and directing their collective energies towards externally oriented goals. The nation-state, for Tagore, is an organising system and a structure of power. This „hardening method of national efficiency gains in strength, and at least for some limited period of time it proudly proves itself to be the fittest to survive … but it is the survival of that part of man which is the least living‟.22 It produces efficiency but also monotony and sameness, such that Western modernity – for example as manifested in modern towns, which presents to us „the physiognomy of this dominance of the nation‟ are „everywhere the same from San Francisco to London, [and now] from London to Tokyo‟.23
The nation is thus characterised as externally aggressive and competitive, but is also equated with internal disciplinary and regulatory power and the erosion of difference. Hence, in both its internal and external orientations, it is the negation of that freedom which is to be found in the life-world of „peoples‟: „living personalities‟ that find their self expression in „literature, art, social symbolism‟ and ceremony.24 Again, the similarity between Tagore‟s „people‟ and Smith‟s „nation‟ – grounded in what Smith terms „ethno-symbolism‟ – is striking.25 A second contrast concept utilised by Tagore to draw his distinctions between the activities of the nation-state and the life-world of society is „politics‟. As E. P. Thompson rightly points out, Tagore was the founder of an „anti-politics‟ who „more than any other thinker of this time, had a clear conception of civil society, as something distinct from and of stronger and more personal texture than political or economic structures‟.26 When political civilisation prevails, Tagore wrote:
nations live in an atmosphere of fear, greed, and panic, due to the preying of one nation upon other [sic] for material wealth. Its civilisation is carnivorous and cannibalistic, feeding upon the blood of weaker nations. Its one idea is to thwart all greatness outside its own boundaries. Never before were there such terrible jealousies, such betrayals of trust; all this is called patriotism, whose creed is politics.27
There is confusion afoot, Tagore says, when equating the idea of „nation‟ with „people‟.28 It leads to „a hopeless moral blindness‟. The „ideal of the social man is unselfishness‟ whereas that of the nation is selfishness.29 Hence, extolling the virtues of the nation means that „the moral foundation of man‟s civilisation is unconsciously undergoing change‟, such that „we find men feeling convinced of the superior claims of Christianity, because Christian nations are in possession of the greater part of the world. It is like supporting a robber‟s religion by quoting the amount of the stolen property‟.30 It is the cult of the nationalism, Tagore believes, that allows us to celebrate the nation even though „what we see in practice is that every nation who has prospered [materially] has done so through its career of aggressive selfishness either in commercial adventures or in foreign possessions or in both‟.31 Tagore‟s point is not that the body he calls „the people‟ is entirely innocent; „we must admit that evils there are in human nature and they come out in spite of our faith in moral laws‟, he says. But the advent of the nation as understood in the modern West provides both vehicle and ideology for the accentuation and acceleration of the more negative, selfish, competitive spirit of man. „[W]hen this idea of the Nation, which has met with universal acceptance in the present day, tries to pass off the cult of selfishness as a moral duty … it not only commits depredations but attacks the very vitals of humanity‟.32
Tagore implicitly points to the power of the national ideal to generate action and self-sacrifice when he claims that the problem with nationalism is that it teaches that „the nation is greater than the people‟.33 This is interesting because Tagore claims it is precisely the „power of self-sacrifice‟ and the „moral faculty of sympathy and co-operation‟ that constitutes „the guiding spirit of social vitality‟.34 Some nationalists – and indeed some analysts of nationalism – have argued the opposite position: that it is the ideal of nationhood that can inspire the individual to greater ends than he or she alone could achieve. In Benedict Anderson‟s famous example, it is the seductive emotional power of the „tomb of the unknown soldier‟, in which the principle of sacrifice – in anonymity, and on behalf of all „the people‟ – becomes a core ideal of the modern imagined national community.35 Others have pointed out the way in which the national community has been integral to the moral bonds and shared risks underpinning modern welfarism.36 But for Tagore, by contrast, the fetishisation of national form is ultimately opposed to the spirit of self-sacrifice. This is so because nationalism leads the people „to ignore the moral law which is universal and uses it only within the bounds of its narrow sphere‟.37 This, in an important sense, is the crux of Tagore‟s critique of the modern nation. He is an insistent universalist in his belief that moral truth is one, indivisible and omnipresent: hence, any „external‟ organisational form which seeks to contradict that truth is a moral offence. It is the nation-state, for Tagore – in dividing humankind – which most aggressively presages this sin. This kind of formulation was never likely to satisfy anyone interested in a systematic theory of nations and nationalism. It didn‟t then, and it does not now. But Tagore‟s objective, of course, was not to provide such a theory. Rather, it was to make an intervention in India‟s evolving, proto-national public sphere: to offer an assessment of the global historical context in which he found himself, based on a moral and spiritual vision and providing a „message‟, both to India and to the West.

Source: Rabindranath Tagore and Nationalism: An Interpretation by Michael Collins

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