The world is in ferment. With popular protests in Egypt, Tunisia, the United States, and Libya calling for an end to the old world order, members of the old guard are shaking in their shoes. But so are those on their payroll, and the old guard gets to be in power because they have a lot of people on the payroll. Consider government employees and others who derive a degree of stability in their lives from a hierarchy and structure kept in place by the powers-that-still-somewhat-be. The choices are not straightforward ones for the haves, have-nots and have-at-least-somethings.
The corpse of Gaddafi and the London riots are cautionary notes that force us to consider, coolly, the implications of popular movements. For the conservative with vested interests, these are perfect illustrations of the need to keep Gaddafis in power. Many’s the time I’ve heard, growing up in Pakistan, people proclaim with a sigh, “Well, at least under Martial Law, you know you can go to work in peace – or stay at home under the curfew.” The power of the people is an amazing and terrible thing. The thing about the power of the people is that it contains within it, concealed, the power of the mob. How can leaders and activists in justified causes restrain and control the mob – the mob which seeks thrills and blood? The mob whose main goals are to fire weapons, slash, burn, beat and ease the burning of the soul? We struggle with the facy that, even at the Holy Pilgrimage, a site of intense spirituality, there are souls trapped in the carnal, who take the opportunity to grope pilgrim women in the throng circumambulating the Kaa’ba.
I watched the horrific video of the toddler in China who was run over by vehicles twice, and lay in the road as passers-by simply – passed by. Watching something like that does a terrible violence to one’s soul so I refrained from watching the grainy video about Gaddafi’s death. One’s assumptions about humanity suffer a kind of death when you see people passing by a bleeding and mangled toddler. It is an event that simply does not fit within my meta-narrative of humanity. It demands a revision of who we are, what this world is, what the nature of human life is, what a collective of human beings is. We know what happens in gangs of kidnappers and criminals, but this is not what is supposed to happen with “normal” people in the street. Who are these normal people? What is in their minds and hearts? What can we predict when we step out in the street? What do people do if they are not being watched by law enforcement, by authorities, by powerful individuals – and if they are unaware of surveillance cameras? And what happens when we are subjected, constantly, to the power of authority, to the power of the gaze, to the power of surveillance, and rarely to the power of reflexivity?
Though I didn’t watch the Gaddafi video, I did read the narration – the cries of “We need him alive” alongside the beating and gunshots. Once power has been shaken loose, the euphoria can barely be restrained. William Golding in “Lord of the Flies” depicts just such a terrible spiral downwards into savagery in a group of schoolboys who are stranded on an island.
For some, the brutality of the mob represents the true nature of humanity. For others, it represents the brutalized who have been crushed and restrained in their manacles so long that their natural impulses are almost irretrievably distorted and mangled. The answer, we hear, is to KEEP them crushed and structured. The answer, we also hear, is to liberate them and to allow the true nature of humanity to emerge freely.
I don’t pretend to have any answers. But neither First World powers, nor the IMF, nor the dictatorships of Egypt, Libya and China, nor Wall Street can escape the responsibility for their bloodsucking clamp on most of the world’s human beings by pointing fingers of accusation at protestors. Must we choose between lives of dehumanized penury under the power of a few or dehumanized terror under the power of many? Surely the choice cannot be so stark. Surely, with centuries of experience, reflection and soul-searching humanity can come up with better options. Surely we can look to the sources of altruism, inspiration, generosity, and wisdom among us, as we have done in all ages before. The power of the people is more than mere brute power – more than the power to snatch, grasp and overthrow. The power of the people lies, too, in the strength to build, the wisdom to grow, and the power to give. Let us, as individuals and collectives, draw upon ALL of our power.