Limits to Cultural Hegemony, Political Democracy and Constitutional Justice
Image Credits: Youth Ki Awaz
On the 2nd of November 2021 ‘Jai Bhim’, a Tamil movie was released on Amazon Prime starring Suriya, Lijomol Jose and Rajisha Vijayan as the leading protagonists of the movie. The plot revolves around members of a primitive tribal community in the state of Tamil Nadu who are subject to institutionalised exclusion, discrimination and humiliation from the State apparatus and society. The context of this real-life inspired drama-thriller is a sustained yet challenging path towards constitutional justice in the face of impunity – custodial torture and murder legitimised by a power structure involving State and caste-social hierarchy.
The struggle for justice led by lawyer Chandru for the tribal community as a whole is a critical juncture in the de-legitimization of cultural hegemony exercised by the caste elite which reveals the inherent limits to the functioning of liberal democracy. The hegemonic structure embodied in accommodation over synthetic inclusion through radical alteration of social structures inherently produces informal oppositional units for interest aggregation which form the repertoire of contestation.
To theoretically locate the ‘struggle’ for formal modes of justice and understand the impunity of the State in alliance with the caste elite, it is pertinent to take note of Gramsci’s articulation of dual modalities of governance. Gramsci establishes a critical distinction between formal institutions of governance embodied in the ensuing critical balance between coercion and consent. As Gramsci argues, the terrain of Parliamentary Democracy exercises ‘legitimate’ and ‘normal’ hegemony characterized by the combination of force and consent to sustain public opinion. Under these institutional structures exist a complex negotiation and renegotiation of embattled multiplicities that transcend simple dialectics of domination and subordination, limiting space for proletarian violence. Hegemony is essentially an invisibilisation but not an absence of conflicts.
Antonio Gramsci. Image Credits: Getty Images
This complex matrix of ‘habitus’ unravels when the critical balance between coercion and consent erodes with the dispositional transformation producing effects of resistance. Gramsci writes, “the hegemonic apparatus cracks and the exercise of hegemony become even more difficult”. The ruptures in hegemony are characterised as the crisis of principle of authority where the central manifestations of this crisis are in terms of the parliamentary majority and on the other hand repudiation of social hierarchy.
One of the repertories of contestation remains the political parties that enable the formation of scrupulous and autonomous identities outside the purview of hegemonic structures under the condition of discontent with the inclusion-exclusion in democracy. ‘Civil society is a matter of suspicion for Gramsci as it embodies the hegemony of bourgeois common-sense and the disaggregated subalternity of the “included” marginalized groups. The foundation of hegemonic disposition is the exigency of legitimacy, which incorporates broader strata of authentic people, limiting all spaces for resistance. Senggani’s defiance of authority is illustrative of the logic of defiance itself… the incumbent of power is vulnerable to resistance against the dispossessed. This struggle derived out of the consciousness of the dispossession is characterised as a rupture where conditions of continuity are broken to either limit or de-limit the spaces for renewal of meaning and experience of living.
The overwhelming employment of torture and murder breaks the critical balance thus producing transformative consciousness among the dispossessed to seek ‘justice’. The repression and impunity fundamental to the treatment of the State towards its dispossessed illustrate what Gramsci said, “the subaltern classes, by definition, are not unified and cannot unify themselves until they become the ‘state’”. The abstention from violence to achieve justice by Senggani, the wife of Rajkannu is interesting for it reinforces the “default position” of the logic of “formal justice” as argued by Isaiah Berlin. Theoretically, the claim for justice is logically sound for it puts pressure on those who prescribe unequal and negative discrimination for the relevant reasons.
The dynamic of informal resistance in consonance with the faction of civil society characterised as the political struggle or politics of recognition is the intense interaction or accumulation of interests among the subordinated groups which condition the visibility but segregation of the groups. While the pressure generated out of resistance results in constitutional justice and political visibility, it risks reinforcing social differentiation and heightened conflict between the aspirants and incumbents of power. While the politics of identity could displace hegemony, it could risk intensifying social tension without the political resolution. The Political dominance of the subalterns articulated in the Mandal era essentially produced the limited concrete unity between the State ideology and the State apparatus without critiquing the unequal/segregation and uneven/internal domination. While the accumulation of identity could produce political visibility, it limits space for social mobility and synthesis beyond accommodation.
There are critical social limits to the enforceability of Constitutional Rights. To what extent is the Constitution in a Democracy seen as legitimate beyond the political realm? Constitutionalism which has its roots in the classical liberal tradition has invariably emphasised political liberalism, negative obligation from the State and the underlying assumption of the social contract. Political liberalism at the heart of constitutional Rights is based upon certain consent of “reasonable individuals”. These form the essential epistemic limits to the achievement of substantive social rights in fundamentally hierarchical societies. The achievement of constitutional justice, therefore, produces a “social minimum” and not expansive justice.
It is not to disagree that Constitution could be operating in the framework of social transformation (positive obligation), yet by default being the Constitution has its limits to expect a varying degree of legitimacy from the ‘popular’. It is in this context, that proportionality of social discrimination forms the basis upon which democratic consent operates. It is this ethical dichotomy between the social and the Constitutional which has fructified a cultural impasse underlined by a unique process of “adjustment and not displacement” of social hierarchy.
By Nikhil Jois K.S
Nikhil Jois K.S. studied undergraduate degree at Christ University, Bengaluru. Interests in theatre, classical music & anything Jazz including Classical Art. Distinctly passionate about political science.
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