The following piece is a summary of a discussion organised by the Department of Political Science in Delhi University on July 21st, 2016. Two speakers were Dr. Layla AbdelRahim and Gangadin Lohar.
Dr. Layla AbdelRahim is an anthropologist whose critique of civilisation and education in her two books ‘Wild Children – Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education‘ (Fernwood, 2013) and ‘Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation: Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness‘ (Routledge, 2015) has received attention in the fields of literary and cultural studies among others.
Gangadin Lohar is one of the conveners of ‘Anhilaal – A coalition against work, career, representation and civilisation in South Asia.’
In her latest book, AbdelRahim seeks to unpack the obsession with obligatory schooling and domestication through studying children’s literature. She gave examples of Victorian fairy tales and the Panchatantra that use the means of stories to explain morals to princes as the male controls the lineage and society controls the male. The project of obligatory schooling started in the late 18th century in Germany and eventually spread being funded by British and North American industrialists. The project was originally conceived not to enable people to develop tools to make a better living, but to make them obedient and tools for capitalist production.
She went on to explain her thesis on civilisation. She sought to find an alternative to the postmodernist tendency to keep ‘challenging the normal’. As a narrative, it is about resources for whom. One of the first institutions of civilisation, namely, Agriculture promotes ecocide, genocide, monoculturalism of a particular species based on what is useful for a particular class of humanity. Plucking wheat promotes monoculturalism, then it is forcefully reproduced to make barley that is fed to domesticated animals. Horses in Iran, dogs in the North and wheat in the Middle East where products of civilisation. Dogs have to work for you in order to ‘earn its living’ in a resource economy. A rape of sorts is ingrained in civilisational economics, she claimed. Hunting is institutionalised and when Europeans colonised North America, the gatherers were killed while the hunters were kept alive. She went a step further to claim that language was a technology that enabled predation, lying, carnivory, patriarchy, slavery, etc. In fiction or children’s literature, media, science or religion, one culture within civilisation is represented as superior to another.
In contrast, wilderness is about mutual help. A crisis in the wilderness is met with scavenging for wild berries and nuts. She derived her arguments from the work of Soviet anarchist, Pyotr Kropotkin who challenged Darwin’s viewpoint of predation in his theory of evolution laid out in his [Darwin’s] classic ‘Origin of Species’. His fieldwork in Siberia showed that life thrives there and that the main experience of life is abundance, not loss or fear as was explained in Darwin’s competition for favoured races. To counter this tendency, she called for an ‘active rewilding’ as the first step rather than countering symptoms like capitalism or consumerism.
AbdelRahim’s devastating critique was followed by Gangadin Lohar’s presentation of an anti-career, anti-work and anti-civilisation manifesto. He traced time poverty to the emergence of civilisation. The anti-work manifesto calls for stopping the use of time as a resource. The idea being that civilisation has been around for 1% of our time on earth and 99% of our time was not about work. He quoted Sumit Sarkar’s work that studied the introduction of clock time in Bengal by the British as opposed to empty homogenous time by Walter Benjamin. Lohar claimed that life was leisure in the hunter-gatherer society and that it is not a coincidence that the word ‘Kaal’ which meant ‘opportune moment’ in the Rig Veda now means ‘the end’ or ‘death’ with the emergence of the labour camps of the caste system. In 1846, Marx wrote in the ‘German Ideology’ that “all revolutions have only redistributed work and power” and that “we are the carcass of time”. All our current political programmes cannot overcome the gap between the individual/community and the state. Hence the need for a pyschoanalysis as ‘rewilding’.
I must confess that I have a personal interest in this topic. Apart from literature arguing against capitalism or the state in general, this is one of the few times I have encountered a thesis that stretched the notion to a critique of civilisation as a whole. It is a fascinating idea, but one which I have to say is still in its early stages of development. Anarchist or Marxist/Post-Marxist literature have more than adequately countered the coercive nature of employment in the capitalist mode of production, the alienation of labour, etc. But to stretch it to question civilisation on a whole is something I am not on board with yet. To quote the speakers themselves, human beings have been ‘civilised’ for only 1% of their time on earth. The existence of notions of liberty, equality, fraternity or human rights even lesser than that. Even though life as we know it is still harsh for a huge proportion of humanity, it is still better off than what it was centuries ago and though we like to think that we’re on the brink of destruction, there is enough research to show that we are getting better at handling ourselves. My sense of optimism about the human race does not allow me to believe that all the work that we have put in over millenia was a waste of time. I most definitely don’t expect to be around to see a time when we boldly go where no one has gone before, but I had like to live with the belief that we can get there if we consciously work towards it with the institutions that we have built so far. There are some which clearly need to be fixed and some others which need to be dismantled, but let’s not tell ourselves that this is a futile exercise!