Changing ideas of democracy, knowledge and justice

Old ideas are changing but will emerge rejuvenated to liberate the human mind in this century

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Representative image
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GN Devy

Throughout history, transition from one era to another, from one century to another posed fresh challenges that required rethinking on assumptions seen in earlier times as ‘natural’. Among the various challenges that the twenty-first century posed before the world, the three that most call for a serious revision of earlier assumptions relate to the settled ideas of democracy, of knowledge and of economic justice.

For people in the twentieth century, democracy was the highest form of political arrangement. Nations struggling for freedom from colonial rule struggled for a representative government. Their hope was that governments formed by people’s representatives would reflect the aspirations and needs of the people they represent.

In theory, the hope was well-founded; in practice, it was grossly belied. The laws related to electing the representatives, creating the institutions to oversee the process, placing the representatives under a people’s audit and making them accountable, have been ridden with incurable deficiencies.

The idea served its purpose to a great extent; but by the end of the century, it had lost its sheen and in country after country, one saw authoritarian governments acquiring power. Initially, this looked like an aberration; but soon it came to be seen as a norm although it is unthinkable that vast masses given the authority to elect governments that they want to have, been happily choosing governments that want to reduce their right to choose.

The second challenge is that of almost complete dislocation of the foundations of knowledge. What was accepted by the world as universal knowledge based on reason and logic has now become an old order. In the academic world, this condition is described as ‘epistemic change.’ Episteme, the building block of knowledge, has undergone a fundamental change in such a manner that now scientists are compelled to speak not of ‘universal of physics’ but at least two sets of the laws operating on matter. Matter itself has been challenged as the only kind of substance of the cosmos.

The situation in social sciences and Humanities is even more open to multi-polarity of norms as against uniformity of norms. The ‘universal standards’ have been revised to adjust to these new interpretations of space, time, motion and matter. Post-truth is one, though bizarre, expression of the multiplicity of references with which reality is being represented in human thinking today.

The third challenge relates to the idea of justice. Economic thought and social philosophies based on that idea of justice look distant. They are being rejected even by those in whose favour they initially emerged.

The working classes, labouring for their entire life to get one’s own house and a reasonable pension, no longer exist. Despite increasing poverty, the poor now like to opt for competitive enterprise rather than struggle for stability. Social justice, no longer, rests in distribution of the wealth for the welfare of citizens.

Citizens, who defend economic individualism, are no longer disturbed by shrinking of the privacy of their homes and minds. They are not agitated by surveillance mounted by the state. Research has long ceased to mean a steady and life-long dedication to a given area of scientific and systematic inquiry. It now means rushing through oceans of materials available in the cyber space and re-jigging information to look like an innovation.

Universities, at one time marked for their questioning of the past, are openly advocating an absurd surrender to worst orthodoxies. Wealth is measured not in terms of what one has earned but in terms of one’s ability to borrow. The gap between those who can borrow and those who cannot has increased phenomenally; but that gap has ceased to be the concern of those who run the state, those who generate knowledge and those who work for their individual enrichment. The question to ask is, are the three fundamental shifts inter-related and not easily visible?

At the beginning of the 19th century, medicine, economics and aesthetics, changed by moving away from the concern for parts toward a concern for the whole. Medicine believed in treating the part of the body that showed symptoms of a disorder. But, in the wake of the epistemic shift, it started looking at the entire body as a single organism. In economics, the wealth of nation came to be defined not in terms of what and where it was produced but in terms of the total context of its production and circulation. Poetry no longer was a bunch of beautiful words, but an indivisible arrangement of words.

The idea of the state which emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century rested on an implicit agreement between citizens who thought they were individuals, and the government that impacted their lives through policy and control.


When liberalisation became the economic norm for nations, three terms acquired great currency. They were: accountability, transparency and sustainability. These terms were used as a kind of religious-prayer in every forum, economic or political.

There is an unwritten rule in Linguistics about over-use of words. When words come to the end of their utility, they get used with maximum frequency before getting forgotten altogether. That rule has worked in the case of the three pet-terms. Today, governments and corporate businesses have moved aeons away from accountability and transparency. Besides, neither ecology nor economy has any concern for sustainability.

The new taxonomies of knowledge, power and justice are apparently tied together by the same principle that governed the epistemic shift during the 19th century. At that time the move was from an individual to the entire society and nation, a move away from the part and towards the whole. In the current transition, the move is away from a single nation to the entire world, from a single planet to the entire cosmos, from a single framework of time and space to a much larger, almost cosmic, frame of time and space.

Obviously, the moment for the ideas of self-engrossed nationalism, desire for self-consuming economic gains and self-saturating craving for rapid movement of information, is bound to be brief. History of ideas tells us that ideas of justice, freedom and knowledge will emerge expanded, deepened and greatly liberating minds of humans as the 21st century progresses.

That will be a larger democracy based on deep respect for diversity and ecology and founded on a more nuanced idea of justice. One needs to read the signs of our time in the light of what we know of the human past. This is how it has been; this is how it shall be, the long story of human advent.

(The author is a linguist and cultural activist)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

(Views are personal)

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