Democracy today belongs more to the dark science of governance, to the emphasis of politics, than to the dreamlike world of utopias and other inventions. Democracy is no longer fun, full of plurality and emergence. It’s a rules game that emphasizes procedural emptiness, number logic, rather than dreams of a good life. Even the idea of ”wellness” belongs more to advertising and cosmetics than a healthy nutrient for politics. For many critics, the idea of democracy today invokes the drumbeat of technocratic governance. Yet my critical friends point out that while the nation-state is lackluster, our nationalism was a costume ball of ideas, possibilities, dreams and pluralities. Nationalism was playful and hospitable, open to dissident Englishmen and women: where else to find an AO Hume, a sister Nivedita, a Patrick Geddes, a CF Andrews providing recipes for a future nation?
This particular point has been made by many of the wise social scientists that I know. They told me that nationalism was not a dream about the states; he also invented dreams of alternatives. Of particular concern was childhood. The nationalist maintained that we would be released when childhood became free.
Patrick Geddes believed that the city would be free if childhood was happy and playful. Civic education for the Scottish biologist began in childhood, and politics and planning were extensions of creative pedagogy. Mahatma Gandhi dreamed of a whole world of science around the charkha. the charkha, he suggested, could link the Sermon on the Mount to Pythagoras. Theosophists led by Annie Besant reinvented the Scout movement, erasing the traces of Aryan supremacy that Robert Baden-Powell had created after the Boer War. For Rabindranath Tagore, childhood was only a synonym of art and utopia. Sadly, the gloom of childhood adds to the monotony of the nation-state. At those times, I remembered my father’s favorite game: the idea of thought experiments. A heuristic of ideas that could resuscitate rigor mortis of a notion. My father thought politics was not inventive enough. It took both the plumber and the utopian in equal measure.
He would add that such games would have to have inventive and imaginary characters, examples that provided laughter and insight to the exercise. They should be an unlikely mix of Gandhi, Geddes, Blake, Tutu, Kabir and the Dalai Lama.
Think about democracy in a classroom. What metaphor would you associate with it, a manifesto, a regulation, a will? Imagine Geddes claiming it’s a tree. The tree does not exist. Biologically, a tree is a common good of connectivity. A tree connects, reciprocates, supports at least 40 trees with its root system. Democracy, by being tree-like, becomes a communicative system, inclusive of the whole. Without the language, the gossip, and the communication, our democracy tree would be dead.
As a common good of connectivity, a tree does not operate on the logic of the economy. Democracy must suspect the utilitarian calculation. You cannot make representation and cost-benefit speak the language of suffering. Childhood should be filled with proverbs, folk tales, myths to understand justice. Desmond Tutu would emphasize this point by showing how an ordinary folkloric term like Ubuntu Anglo-Saxon law outdated. The Dalai Lama would quickly add that we must not forget that democracy is not a game of rules. The rules can be corseted and restrictive. Democracy is a game; it emphasizes fantasy, everyday life and surprise. Gandhi would add that democracy is a playful experience, an experience on oneself invented in the ashram spirit. Democracy should never be ceded to an arid think tank. It must be ashram support the game and the sacred because democracy is always a game of possibilities, an act of storytelling.
Geddes and Blake would add that democracy should not be treated as a science. Often in our obsession with order and stability, we fall victim to authoritarianism. Democracy needs uncertainty, disorder, to invent the unforeseeable. Without dissent and alternatives, democracy becomes arid and boring, like a dull school. Democracy as a set of diktats becomes a college of tutoring; nothing destroys childhood more than discovering the predictable.
Looking at the experience with pleasure, a philosopher like Raimundo Panikkar might step in and suggest that language and dialogue are essential. Democracy is a pilgrimage through differences. We must invent the Other and the foreigner to support democracy. Words like minority become binding. They oppress. They constrain. You have to use the idea of citizenship; otherwise, the “minority” would become a handicapped part of democracy, which in turn would become a three-legged race, while the rest were unleashed and free. Dialogue and diversity create freedom and difference. Schools and democracies should have more.
Gandhi listened to the discussion delighted with the thread of the conversation. Every idea he felt was like a prayer, a shloka in the name of democracy. Democracy as a bet on human nature begins with prayer. You have to start with the body and the sensorium, learn to touch and feel. To qualify someone as untouchable is to demean the sensorium. Dissent and satyagraha start with the body because the non-violent body defines the grammar of the body politic.
Bishop Tutu would add with enthusiasm the idea of memory. Democracy needs memory as the guardianship of the sensorium. A storyteller is only an embodiment of memory. What democracy needs are not concepts but folklore, ways of living democracy. It is in a democracy that the ethics of memory and the ethics of invention combine to create guardianship.
Blake would add time to it, a poetically variegated time, from the cosmic to the cyclical. Without time and without dream time, democracy would be arid. Geddes would show how schedules in their linearity threaten democracy. Democracy, Geddes would say, looks like a garden, but the primordial and the forest should haunt it.
Children would easily grasp such concepts, invent games and possibilities around democracy and its metaphors, its rituals, its meaning of life as sacred. As the meeting is about to end, Gandhi weaves and recites a prayer. Play and prayer make democracy. There is a feeling of joy all around us. Children invent and add their possibility games. They feel the drama of democracy and the need to add their little performances to it. This is where the future of the democratic world lies. A little kid got it right when he enthusiastically said that democracy is like Home Science, a cookbook of concepts. You have to taste it, smell it, for it to come to life. Democracy needs cookbooks of hope, the child said with delight.
Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with Compost Heap, a network pursuing alternative imaginations