The National Imaginary: Patriots and the Virus in the West

(Eighth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part III of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”


A demonstration with around 2,500 people outside the state capitol in Washington against Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home order, April 19. Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The contours of each country’s national history appear to be on display in the responses that have been witnessed across the world to the coronavirus pandemic.  However, in suggesting this, I do not by any means wish to be seen as subscribing to the ideas of distinct personality traits that were behind “the national character” studies undertaken in the 1940s, a project that involved what were many of the leading anthropologists of that time, among them Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.  The argument rather is that someone such as the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is perhaps more clearly implicated in such a view, judging from his observations about the “freedom-loving instincts” of the English people, and there is little doubt that “national character” studies were rather more common at that time as Orwell’s own essay is indubitably structured along those lines as well.  It is not difficult to see why the temptation to produce types such as “the freedom-loving” English, the “yellow” or cowardly Japanese, or the militaristic German might not have been irresistible during the Second World War.   Nor is it the case, keeping in mind the preceding two parts of this essay, that there is a seamless history of “Englishness” from Samuel Pepys writing in the second half of the seventeenth century to Britain’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, though it is striking that, to take one illustration, Britain was an outlier in its refusal to use quarantine in the nineteenth century when the question of controls over the movement of Muslim pilgrims came up at the Constantinople Sanitary Conference in 1866.  The French and the Ottomans had pressed the Government of India to impose quarantines as one measure to control the spread of cholera among Muslim pilgrims, but they encountered a wall of resistance.  Though the British argued that they were unwilling to consider any measures that were likely to alienate Muslim pilgrims, it is almost certainly the case that their then rigid adherence to the doctrines of free trade and free movement made them deeply suspicious of quarantine.

But let us return momentarily to George Orwell.  The modern world, he says, cannot be understood apart from the “overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty”, and perforce “one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook.”  The English are far from being the only people who claim to have a special attachment to liberty, and the question of French national characteristics has come up in the debate that is now animating France on whether the proposed deployment of smart phone tracking apps to inform people if they have come in contact with an infected person can be reconciled with the tradition of individual liberties.  In late March, the French interior minister dismissed the idea of digital tracking, which has thus far been used with remarkable success in South Korea to contain COVID-19, as anathema to “French culture”.  The junior minister in the French government who is responsible for digital affairs and is charged with the development of the app, Cédric O, has similarly gone on record to suggest that the debate “has to do with French history and a sensitivity to freedom that is inherent to French culture.”  The supposition is that France as a constitutional democracy has a long-standing commitment to the “rule of law”, and that the individual’s love of liberty, subject only to the constraint that such love should not constrain someone else from their rightful exercise of liberty, is inextricably interwoven into the “rule of law”; correspondingly, Asian nations, even when they, as may be said of present-day South Korea, display democratic features, have only a historically contingent relationship to the idea of freedom as it is not intrinsic to their cultures.


President Macron’s Third Address to France on the Coronavirus Pandemic, 13 April 2020.

The official cue to frame the debate as one pitting the apparently severe constraints on freedom of movement deemed necessary to mitigate the coronavirus against the cultural and political inheritance of the French people may have come from the French President, Emmanuel Macron.  In addressing the nation on April 13th, he expressed the hope that the discussion in the National Assembly would make it abundantly clear to the nation that “under no circumstances should the coronavirus weaken our democracy or infringe on [our] civil liberties.”  It is telling, however, that if French officials have invoked the cherished principles of the French Revolution and its call to liberté, égalité, fraternité, they have not taken recourse to the idea that the French have an inalienable right to frequent their neighborhood café for the customary coffee or aperitif.  The English claim their liberties only for themselves:  as Orwell would have it, the English like their pub and their “nice cup of tea”, and are at heart a nation of flower-lovers, stamp-collectors, coupon-snippers, darts-players, and crossword-puzzle fans.  They had an empire, too, as Orwell—who was born as Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, in present-day Bihar in India, and served in the Imperial Police Service in Burma from 1922 until his resignation in March 1928—knew all too well, but “the patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.” France, that other freedom-loving nation on the continent, has in contrast always thought of itself as a country that sets an example to others: thus, in the present debate on whether digital apps might be used to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Sacha Houlié, a French lawmaker from President Macron’s own party, La République En Marche, put it quite candidly:  “We are France.  In terms of civil liberties, being France means something.  It means that, in a sense, the world is watching what we do.”


Protestors at the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on April 30. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

The world has better things to do than watch France. But let us put that aside. Given the long histories of European colonialism, and the unspeakable brutalities of colonial wars, one might with very good cause forthright dismiss all talk of the supposedly intrinsic attachment to the ideas of liberty among the British, French, or indeed other Europeans as nothing more than bunkum and balderdash.  To do so would be to fall grievously into the error of supposing that unearthing the hypocrisies of peoples, or nations, furnishes enough warrant to dismiss the motive force of the national imaginary in shaping a country’s social response to something like the coronavirus pandemic. The demonstrations over the last few weeks in the United States against the restrictions that have been placed on the movement of people, as well as against the mandated closing of schools, universities, government offices, indeed all “non-essential” businesses and private enterprises, provides yet another if more muddled illustration of how national histories and notions of national identity continue to play a critical shape in shaping the political epidemiology of a global pandemic such as COVID-19.  Demonstrations had broken out, as reported in major newspapers and media outlets, in mid- to late-March in Michigan, Ohio, Idaho, Kentucky, Washington, and other American states against the continued lockdown and stay-at-home orders that are now common to nearly all parts of the United States.  The protestors, judging from interviews, newspaper accounts, statements released to the press, and the placards that they have been carrying, have expressed a strong desire to be able to go back to work and have demanded that businesses, churches, and public spaces such as beaches be re-opened.  “My constitutional rights are essential”, read one placard held by a supporter of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, while in Richmond, Virginia, demonstrators held placards bearing slogans such as “End the Shut Down” and “We Will Not Comply.”  In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a boy held aloft a sign, “Freedom is Essential”, while another displayed a placard with a provocation, “Give me Liberty or Give me COVID-19.”  Whatever one may make of the inexpediency and perhaps insensitivity of such demonstrations, they cannot be dismissed merely as expressions of the entity to which modern man has been reduced:  homo economicus.  The demonstrators may want to return to work, but the recourse to another language—freedom, liberty, and rights—also impresses.


Demonstration at the State Capitol in Denver, Colorado, on April 19, calling for the reopening of the state. Photo: Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images.

Trump, a voracious consumer of Fox News, which has been vocal in its sharp dismissal of state governors who have insisted on more rigorous lockdowns as “authoritarian”, himself has egged on the demonstrators with the all-caps tweets with which his name is now indelibly linked:  “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Virginia, with its (in the American experience) hallowed history as the birthplace of some of the country’s most well-known founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, among others—has especially rankled Trump as a state that has gone over to the other side and Trump has called to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment.  It is under siege.”  There is ample evidence that the demonstrators have in part also been instigated by right-wing groups, white nationalists, militant supporters of the constitutional right to bear arms, anti-abortion activists, religious fundamentalists, even—what is more particular to the US with its own particular histories of resistance to any state-imposed intrusions on private life—anti-vaccination groups. Some of the protests have been funded by innocuous sounding organizations such as the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Michigan Liberty Militia, and the Michigan Freedom Fund, but the link of some organizations to neo-Nazi ideology, white nationalism, or to such causes as the state support of Christianity or the militant advocacy of the unchecked right to private ownership of arms cannot be doubted.

(to be continued)

See also:  Part II, “The Pub Crawl and the Sprint of the Virus:  Britain, COVID-19, and Englishness”, here.

Part I:  “Life in the Time of Plague:  Samuel Pepys in London, 1663-1666”, here.

The Coronavirus and the Humbling of America

(Fourth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

One of the most striking aspects of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has created an upheaval all over the world has to be the astonishing sight of the world’s richest society brought to its knees and appearing as a suppliant before the very country, China, that it holds responsible for the virus.  No doubt everyone serving the sitting President will take deep offense at this suggestion, and certainly the United States has made every effort to show to the world that, if anything, it intends to capitalize on this opportunity to further punish its enemies and show that it remains the world’s predominant power.  “While coronavirus ravages Iran,” noted the Washington Post in a headline two weeks ago, “U.S. sanctions squeeze it.”  The United States has not only ignored calls to suspend sanctions against Iran and Venezuela, but has rather ramped up the pressure against what it terms “rogue states”.  The Department Justice a few days ago unveiled charges of drug trafficking and money-laundering against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and over a dozen other high-ranking officials.  One can readily believe that the Ayatollahs in Iran and Maduro and his ilk in Venezuela have done little for their own people, but they do not go around peddling themselves as God’s gift to the world.  Evidently, if the United States is the example before us, nations do not become imperial powers by practicing humanity, much less chivalry.

As I write these lines, the United States has 387,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, nearly five times the number of cases in China where the outbreak first occurred.  China accounted, until well into mid-February, for the preponderant portion of the coronavirus cases around the world, and even as late as March 15th it accounted for more than half of the 5,833 deaths attributed to COVID-19. It is a different world today, three weeks later: nearly 12,300 Americans have been felled by COVID-19, and the United States accounts for more than a quarter of coronavirus cases globally. To take only one illustration of the desperate situation into which the country has been flung, at his daily press conference on April 4th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo noted that he expected that his state required 17,000 ventilators, but that the nation’s entire stockpile of ventilators amounted to 10,000.

We have lived in an enumerative world since the early 19th century, one in which we acquired, so to speak, an unquenchable taste (as Mary Poovey has described it) for “the fact” and, in the words of UCLA historian Ted Porter, a “trust in numbers”.  COVID-19 occupies many worlds and imaginaries, and the statistics in its wake have an obsessive and troubling quality of their own. One wakes up in the morning and turns to the Johns Hopkins corona global map, or to, to get the most accurate and updated figures charting the menacing spread of COVID-19.  But, apart from cases and fatalities, there are the constant references to many millions of masks, gloves, and test kits, tens of thousands of ventilators and ICU beds, a $2.2 trillion relief package over which the Republican wolves in the White House and present administration desired no oversight but their own, ten million unemployed in the United States in virtually an instant, and more:  the numbers come as an onslaught.

What astonishes the most, however, is the daily news items and vivid stories about the acute shortages of masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and hospital beds.  Until two weeks ago, most cities and municipalities in the US barely even had any test kits.  Doctors and health care workers throughout the country have described their desperation and their mounting fear that patients will simply have to be left to die. The stories of these shortages are now legion; the fear that medical workers, and those who work in grocery stores or in other “essential” services, experience is palpable.  Moreover, since the Trump regime has essentially left states to fend for themselves, the states have been forced into a bidding war among themselves for ventilators and medical equipment.  Lately, as Trump has come under attack for doing too little too late to tackle the pandemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has even outbid the states.  Apparently, even as the pandemic rages on, the principles of the free economy must not be abandoned and vulturous capitalists must be rewarded.

Let us not even speak of the fact that, as has happened so often in the past, many Americans still think of “big government” with utter disdain and that the mere taint of “socialism” is enough to discredit a person such as Bernie Sanders in the eyes of a substantial portion of the electorate, but that no one appears to be objecting at this juncture to all but the wealthiest Americans receiving hand-outs from the federal government.  The questions that are coming to the minds of outsiders to the country are these: How has it come to pass that the United States, with a little less than one-fifth of China’s population, now accounts for a quarter of the world’s cases?  What can be more pathetic and disgraceful than the sight of the world’s wealthiest country having such disregard for its own people? What kind of spectacle does the United States, which is chockablock with Nobel Laureates in medicine and the sciences, and which prides itself on the most advanced medical care that can be found anywhere, present to the world when doctors, nurses, and health care workers repeatedly have to plead for supplies and when their lives have been put at risk?

The commonplace answers may be all too evident to many and yet, as I would suggest, are inadequate. The Boston Globe some days ago opined that Trump has “blood on his hands”, and that the megalomaniac President of the United States has made a spectacle of himself is transparent to everyone. It is on record that for days and weeks he even denied that there was any problem to begin with, confidently predicting on February 26th, when the US had 57 confirmed cases, that COVID-19 cases in America would be “down close to zero”.  His claim in the last few days that he can be viewed as having done “a very good job” if the death toll can be kept to 100,000, or even 200,000 people, speaks only to his insufferable arrogance and criminal insensitivity.  Trump’s argument that no one could predict the pandemic says nothing at all, and not only because neither could other countries: political leaders get tested not when everything is hunky-dory, but rather when a situation demands a response that is not written down in the existing playbook.  What is also germane is the substantial public discussion that has brought to light many other features of the political landscape, some shaped largely by the present government and others more characteristically a part of the American political imaginary:  these include, among others, the recent downgrading of government offices designed to address epidemics, the decline of public funding for virus-related scientific research, and the highly fragmented response to the pandemic, particularly in view of the colossal failure of the White House to understand the gravity of the problem, across local, city, and state agencies.

There are other many familiar parts to the narrative that Trump, his political acolytes in Congress, and Fox News, which is to the Trump regime what Goebbels’ propaganda ministry was to the Nazi regime, have put forward:  all point to the fact that that the present political regime has a callous disregard for the lives of ordinary Americans, just as this narrative obscures the most important considerations which might help explain why the most powerful and wealthy country in the world has been humbled.  It will suffice to bring only two considerations to the fore. First, though overall health care expenditures in the United States outstrip by far spending in any other country, the proportion spent on public health is far less than in other advanced industrialized nations. The British newspaper the Guardian, which often has better reporting on the United States than any American newspaper, put forward the argument graphically with this headline in one article:  “Hookworm, a disease of extreme poverty, is thriving in the US South.  Why?” American medicine is resolutely focused on surgical interventions, on helping Americans deflect the moment of death and prolonging the lives of the affluent, and on what may be called the pharmaceutical industrial complex.  This is only a small catalog of its many ills. There is little or no money to be made in public health; moreover, public health is often dismissed as inconsequential since, on the view of political and medical elites, the lives of the poor, the working-class, and the most disadvantaged minorities are worth little and are even expendable.  Everything in the extraordinarily belated, bumbling, even chaotic American response to the coronavirus pandemic points to the deep and pervasive inequalities in the United States and the criminal neglect of the American state towards its own poor, especially African Americans and native Americans.

Secondly, COVID-19’s course in the United States suggests that the narrative of American exceptionalism continues to reign supreme.  The most insistent and insidious aspect of this narrative, barring the tiresome rehearsal of the view that the United States is the glorious gift of some special divine dispensation, is the supposition that the United States generally has nothing to learn from other nations.  Germany, for instance, has a large number of cases, but a much lower fatality rate than Spain, Italy, France, and some other EU nations:  it would seem to have had considerable success in containing the virus by early, rigorous, and sustained testing.  Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea have been exemplary in deploying a series of measures that have had the effect of containing and then mitigating the spread of the virus, even as South Korea, in particular, seemed that it would become the next major “hotspot” of the virus after China—a country which on April 6th, for the first time in four months, has declared no new case of COVID-19.  American officials and some public commentators have, quite naturally, been trying rather assiduously to discredit the Chinese communist party’s account of the spread and eventual containment of the coronavirus disease in China, and the claim that China deliberately under-stated the number of infections is being heard with ever greater vigor.  No one doubts that the Chinese are adept at obfuscating the truth; but we should also not doubt that America has, time after time, shown that it is singularly unwilling to learn from other nations. There is much to fear from the coronavirus pandemic; but I fear, too, that the United States will be insufficiently, perhaps barely, chastened by this experience. It takes some gift to learn humility.

(This is a revised version of a piece first published under the same title at, here.)


Remote Learning and Social Distancing:  The Political Economy and Politics of Corona Pedagogy

(Third in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The advent of COVID-19, or a novel coronavirus, has, it appears, virtually overnight altered the nature of university instruction and student learning.  Throughout the months of January and February 2020, while the virus created havoc in China before turning Italy into the new epicenter, life proceeded on American university campuses without any real thought to what was transpiring in that ‘distant’ country. By January 25, a cordon sanitaire had been placed around the entire province of Hubei Province, which with a population of 60 million has as many people as Italy, but this did not leave any real impression on Americans nor on universities.  As late as February 20, Italy had reported less than a handful of cases, and though there was the whole spectacle of a cruise ship marooned just outside the port city of Yokohama (really a ‘suburb’ of greater Tokyo) with hundreds of passengers stricken with the virus, COVID-19 must still have appeared as an overwhelmingly ‘Asian’ problem.  In truth, even the alleged world-class universities in the most cosmopolitan cities of the United States are overwhelmingly insular.  This is, needless to say, partly the consequence of being ‘American’:  in universities, as in other spheres of life, ‘American exceptionalism’ reigns supreme, and there is frankly little interest in what transpires in the rest of the world. One hopes that, in rejoinder, one will not be told that most of the major American universities, and even many of the minor ones, have “global studies” programs, vast number of area studies programs and departments, and instruction in host of languages.  They doubtless do but even naivety has its limits.  Hegemons must command vast areas of knowledge as much as they wield dazzling military power, use their power to bend other nations to their will, or attempt to set the global agenda in various domains of life.

By early March, as COVID-19 continued on its relentless search for new terrains, panic was beginning to set in and on March 6th Stanford became the first university to announce that it was moving all classes online.  Harvard followed suit some days later, as did the gigantic 10-campus University of California, and within hours nearly hundreds of college and university had suspended in-class instruction.  The letter of the President of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, to members of the Harvard University of March 10th serves as a useful template for understanding how university leaders across the nation have sought to normalize the transition to what is called “remote learning”.  It begins with the customary acknowledgment that the crisis at hand has been “a powerful reminder of just how connected we are to one another”: barely had this platitude left the mouth of this “leader” of the world’s richest university, it became known that Harvard had no plans to offer any aid to students from working class families who were being asked to vacate their dormitory rooms instantly and had nowhere to go and inadequate funds to support themselves in independent housing. One student on financial aid, interviewed for a New York Times article, said that Harvard’s edict felt “like an eviction notice.” Harvard is well-connected indeed—what else is it but well-connected, we may ask—but its niggardly conduct and miserliness is as well-known as its propensity for being connected with the elect.

Without much fanfare, Bacow then proceeds to state that Harvard will “begin transitioning to virtual instruction for undergraduate and graduate classes”, and that students are asked “to meet academic requirements remotely until further notice” and be prepared to stay at home. “The decision to move to virtual instruction was not made lightly”, avers Bacow, but members of the community were given no insights into the supposed ponderous deliberations in which he and other university administrators were engaged.  The Chancellor of UCLA, the institution from which I derive my livelihood, similarly emailed members of the “campus community” about the “transition to online instruction” on March 10th.  The wording of his missive, announcing the immediate suspension of “in-person classes” and the “transition to online platforms”, is similarly entirely opaque about the substantive nature of the deliberations, though the “community” is sought to be reassured that the decision was taken “after detailed and thoughtful discussion, consultation with experts, and planning and preparation”.  I suppose it is enough these days to mention “experts” and expect that, willy-nilly, everyone will quietly fall into line. Presidents of even leading universities long ago ceased to be intellectuals—and I am hopeful that the distinction between “intellectuals” and academics, especially academic “experts”, still resonates with some—and the preponderant number, notwithstanding their academic credentials, have more of an aptitude for administrative work, fund-raising, and parleying with the legislature and the corporate world rather than anything else. Lately, considering this or that crisis—gun shootings and ICE raids on undocumented students, to name two—they serve eminently as conduits of information, as grief counselors, as consolers-in-chief, and as purveyors of messages of the “thoughts and prayers” variety. What is striking is that nowhere in these messages from Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts is there any substantive discussion of the implications of “remote learning”.

The extraordinary ease with which the highest-level university administrators have sought to effect the transition to “online” or “remote” learning should, however, be a matter of grave concern.  It is not that administrators have not anticipated the concerns that some faculty and students alike have expressed:  some students do not own computers, while others, particularly in rural areas, have limited or unstable internet connections; and there are yet other students, especially from poor or working-class families, who share their rooms with siblings or do not have quiet places where they can work.  And there are even students, if a miniscule number, who are without any roof over their head.  All these and other akin considerations are highly pertinent, if predictable: they point to the fact that higher education is as hierarchical an enterprise as any, and that its political economy in the US reflects the nakedly capitalist system in which it is embedded.  But these concerns, genuine as they are, do not begin to approximate the perils of the mass transition to “remote learning” that is now taking place under the cover of the coronavirus.

Several considerations may be brought forward as a prolegomenon to further discussions on the subject.  First, though the present transition to “remote learning” is being presented as a temporary measure, there is every possibility that it will become a permanent feature of the American educational landscape to a far greater degree than is the case at present.  There are many people, representing a range of interests, who have been asking why, if brick-and-mortar bookstores have been replaced with Amazon and other online book vendors, and even grocery stores have lost a substantial portion of their business to online merchants, colleges and universities as we have known them should not fold and turn strictly to online learning. The initial investment in preparing a proper online course in a studio setting can be hefty, but is quickly recovered as the course can be recycled to tens of thousands of students in multiple setting over a long span of time; moreover, the “remote learning” that is now being peddled as the substitute for in-class teachings does not even remotely require such an investment.  Those who have been hired to offer online instruction at community colleges or 4-year state level institutions over the last several years are generally paid a pittance, sometimes as low as $2500 for a full semester-long course or even a lesser amount for a course with a handful of students.

The growing attraction for online learning stems, however, from considerations besides the fact that online education is much cheaper than the “traditional” classroom setting.  The university is one of the few remaining sites of dissent in most countries; the university is, comparatively speaking and to use a colloquialism, a “messy business”.  University cafes have everywhere been recognized as the place where the real learning takes place, and where fellowship and conviviality become possible.  Democracies have to allow, at least to a minimal extent, a public space to radical, dissenting, and eccentric ideas, and that space, to the extent that it exists at all in a country where nearly everyone subscribes to the capitalist ethos, is occupied preeminently by the university. Few people really understand what universities represent, and to most people, indeed even to most students, the university is merely a passport to secure employment and a job-training factory. The corporate and managerial types, as well as many politicians, have long fretted over the inefficiency of the modern university, where, lo and behold, a professor of art history, anthropology, or English literature may—in the best of circumstances—end up making upwards of $200,000 annually, and that too for teaching two to four courses every year. Though the corporation has made deep inroads into the American university, and rendered some units of the university—economics department, and the business and law schools, to name a few—largely servile to its own interests, the feeling persists that much more needs to be done to put the university on a “business model.”

The increasing encroachment of the business model, the ascendancy of the managerial and administrative types, and the relentless quest for profits have all had the effect of already altering the university in the US, and in countries such as India where the American model of privatization resonates strongly with the present government and Indian elites, to an appreciable degree. Nowhere is the present turn more palpable than in the increasingly diminished ranks of tenured faculty and the resort to adjunct and part-time instructors, many of whom are paid abysmally low wages, lack union representation, have no medical insurance, and of course have absolutely no protection against dismissal.  A recent review article in the New York Review of Books (12 March 2020) of some 15-20 books on higher education terms these adjuncts not incorrectly as the “serfs of academe”.  The brute fact is that the same administrators who are effortlessly pushing for remote learning, without any discussion whatsoever with tenured faculty, are also in favor of increasing the ranks of adjunct faculty. They cost the university a fraction of what tenured faculty do, particularly at the most prestigious institutions.  All of this transpires amidst the charade of what at the University of California is called “shared governance”: naturally, university administrators are not keen on conversing with tenured faculty whom they would like to see replaced with cheaper and more vulnerable academic labor.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it is also transparently clear that “remote learning” is in the most insidious ways the apposite form of pedagogy for the “social distancing” that we are all enjoined to practice diligently.  One of the many unfortunate trends in American higher education, which I now fear is going to become more prominent with “remote learning”, is the destruction of the relationship between the professor and the student. It would take a volume to etch the narrative of this corrosive decline as there are myriad factors which have led to such a state of affairs. Many students in American universities, even at the better ones, are woefully underprepared for any serious intellectual inquiry, and the vast majority, as I have already argued, have no intrinsic interest in learning.  But leaving aside these considerations, if one may turn to a very different illustration of the corruption of pedagogy, it is astonishing that a preponderant number of the faculty, at American universities and indeed now in universities in many other countries, such as Australia and Britain, have readily embraced such technologies as Turnitin [turn-it-in]. It has been ostensibly designed to prevent students from plagiarizing and thus, as the company states, to promote “academic integrity”.  Such technologies amply illustrate the place of surveillance in a modern liberal society and the various ways in which the state has encouraged the practice of self-surveillance.  There is a further problem here, though no one seems much bothered by it:  the assumption is that potentially every student is adept at cheating, and students must establish that the work is their own and not plagiarized.  (We may leave aside, for obvious reasons, such finer points as what is meant by plagiarism, how ideas are borrowed, or how in borrowing an idea might find a more interesting life than in the ‘original’ text; we may also ignore the argument advanced by compliant faculty that their recourse to Turnitin derives merely from considerations of expediency, just as it discourages students from leaning blatantly on the work of others without due acknowledgment.)

The effect of modern university learning, I would submit, has been to distance faculty from students.  I am also mindful of the fact that there are arguments to be made for some forms of distancing:  some faculty, to take one example, might argue that such distancing has been critical in keeping some male professors from preying on female students.  The university is, needless to say, a very different institution than what it was three or four decades ago, but what is unquestionably true, to my mind, is that relationships built on trust have become increasingly difficult. “Remote learning” and “social distancing” are, in the milieu of university education, cognate categories:  what remote learning will undoubtedly do is render students even more distant from faculty.  University education is headed entirely in the direction of becoming another business, just merely another enterprise in a society that knows no other kind of person than homo economicus.  The coronavirus pandemic is likely to hasten the end of the traditional university as we have known it over the decades and centuries.

















The Real Emergency in “Climate Emergency”: Consumption, Social Anomie, and Loss of Meaning

Concluding part of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'” 

Viewed in totality, and over a long-term historical perspective, the one and only inescapable conclusion is that the United States remains, by far, the worst polluter in the world.  Some 400 billion tons of CO2 had been released into the atmosphere between 1751 and 2017, and the United States accounted for 25% of these emissions.  It is no longer the manufacturing Goliath of the world, just as its share of the world’s CO2 emissions has decreased to the point where another colossus, China, has now overtaken it to claim this dubious honor.  Nevertheless, it is unimpeachably true that the 340 million residents of the United States, constituting some 5% of the world’s population, consume a quarter of the world’s energy.  The average American consumes as much energy as 13 Chinese, or 31 Indians, or 128 Bangladeshis.  The levels of consumption in the United States are, in a word, obscene; and to the extent that the ‘American Dream’ has become everyone’s dream, the obscenity of consumption is the regnant pornography of our times.  The rest of the world has for decades watched America consume.  There is a voyeurism of consumption, too; and Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Indonesians and others want nothing more than to consume much like the Americans—and their country cousins, the allegedly benign Canadians and the allegedly easy-going Australians who have their own sordid, or rather I should say, malignant history of exterminating and cordoning off ‘undesirables’. Those who have been left out of this grand narrative want not only cars, refrigerators, and flat-screen TVs, but meat on the table, the chimera of choice, the luxury of luxury goods.

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The predominant account of climate change still treats it as a subject that is properly the domain of scientists and environmentalists.  However, as Christine Shearer puts it, in her short book on Kivalina, a small village of 400 people in Alaska at the outskirts of ‘civilization’ that is now on the brink of extinction, “although climate change is often discussed as an environmental problem, its root causes are social.”  Shearer’s account is far-reaching in its understanding of some of the problems that underlie the catastrophe of global warming, extending beyond the more familiar accounts that we have of the unmitigated greed of fossil fuel companies and the complicity of many politicians with vested business interests.  She describes the arrogance of contractors and experts who claim to know more about the “cold and remote Arctic than longtime residents”, and the supposition that local and traditional knowledges are inferior to modern “scientific research”.  Moreover, as I have already argued, it is rather more difficult to put a “human face” on the story of global warming since, unlike the catastrophes induced (say) by bombing from the air, the effects of global warming are generally experienced over a period of time.  The point is made rather more forcefully by Robert Jay Lifton, who has spent a lifetime devoted to the study of nuclear annihilation and forms of genocide such as the Holocaust.  “A problem for climate researchers”, he writes in his 2017 book The Climate SwerveReflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival (2017), “that makes their mental struggle different from that of their nuclear counterparts is that images representing global warming catastrophe can never match those of nuclear threat.”  The very fact that his study is essentially informed by a comparison of the “nuclear and climate threats” suggests the extent to which he recognizes that the problem of climate change is to our age what the threat of nuclear annihilation was to those who lived during the heyday of the Cold War.


The village of Kivalina, Alaska.  Photo source:

To return, however, to the question of consumption, it is worth asking whether it is merely a coincidence that the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Western world, have awoken to what is now being described as a “climate emergency” at precisely the time that countries of the Global South, and in particular China, have lifted many of their people into the middle class? China and India alone account for 34% of the global emissions, also proportionate (taken together) to their share of the world population.  The per capita CO2 emissions of an Indian, at 1.84 tons, is still a fraction of the per capita CO2 emissions of an American which stands at 16.24 tons.  We may anticipate that the per capita emissions in both China and India, as well as in all the countries of the Global South, will in the ordinary course of affairs continue to grow—and perhaps exponentially, if the ambitious plans in nearly every country to diminish poverty and bring people into the middle class, which is nothing but a consuming class, whatever its historical role in the countries of Western Europe in effecting a fundamental social transformation in the 19th century, come to fruition.

When an emergency is declared, some constituency is asked to bear the price.  There is every reason to suspect that, in keeping with the traditions of the last 500 years when the age of European expansion and the plundering of the world commenced, it is the countries of the Global South that will be burdened with the task of alleviating the “climate emergency”. Every sane person is bound to admit that climate change is an issue of planetary proportions and this is as decisive a time as ever to repudiate a nationalist outlook. Unfortunately, the history of racism, privilege, greed, and self-aggrandizement in the West, to which we may now add the art of killing by kindness, overwhelming the world with philanthropy, and the chicanery which has led to new forms of intervention dressed up as “responsibility to protect” and “the international community”, all suggest that colonialism will be given a new shelf life. We cannot doubt that there is a science to climate change, but a resort to scientific explanations and solutions without a due consideration of social, cultural, and political histories is another form of moral jaundice and blackmail.

Deep ecologists have called for the end of industrial civilization and some have made common cause with ecofeminists, advocates of chaos theory, anarchic tribalists, and neotribalists.  Some of that terrain is usefully covered in Michael E. Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s FutureRadical Ecology and Postmodernity, though in the twenty-five years that have elapsed since the publication of the book we have arrived at a richer understanding of climate change and the precipitous descent of humankind into oblivion if the problem of climate change is not addressed forcefully and expeditiously.  But these discussions should not obscure, I have tried to suggest, the politics of emergency behind “climate emergency”.   Climate change cannot be tackled until the affluent nations of the Global North renounce, or are compelled to disown, their privileges and their own lifestyles.  That much is clear; what are less evident, however, are all the signs of loneliness and social anomie that in turn inform the cultures of consumption and acquisition.  Those who are in the Global South at least should be mindful of the fact that the West has a noxious history of rendering science into the handmaiden of a self-serving politics.  There is more than one kind of emergency behind “climate emergency”.

See also Part II, “Global Warming and co2 emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the past”, here.

Part I, “‘Climate Emergency’:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019”, here.

Global Warming and co2 Emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the Past

Part II of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'”

The periodic reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body charged with assessing the science related to climate change, and the World Meteorological (WMO), a specialized agency of the UN which monitors changes in weather and climate and assesses the behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere, have charted the impending disaster in increasingly ominous language. Extreme climate events, far in excess of the occasional hurricane or drought that made it to the world news twenty years ago, have been aplenty: raging fires in Australia and the United States; record flooding in Europe, Africa, and Kerala; droughts in Argentina, Uruguay, and Afghanistan; and heat waves in London, Paris, and, to add a new gloss to the idea of the surreal, Greenland.  The scenes of devastation are writ large in the language of apocalypse.  “Australia’s hellish fire season has eased,” states a recent article in the New York Times, “but its people are facing more than a single crisis.”  The word “hellish” alerts us to the extraordinarily trying times that Australians have already experienced and will doubtless have to go through before their ordeal is over—if it is over:  the cycle of “drought, fire, deluge” is repeated with intensifying effect.


Perhaps the most iconic image from the wildfires in Australia 2020: A kangaroo rushes past a burning house amid apocalyptic scenes in Conjola, New South Wales. Picture: Matthew Abbott / New York Times / Redux / eyevine)

The dire predictions from merely five years ago now seem considerably understated, and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made something of a concerted effort not to appear alarmist when, just three months ago on the eve of the UN’s annual climate conference, he declared that “climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs.”  But is such language calculated to stir the attention, let alone passions, of those caught up in wars, fleeing persecution, fighting drug addiction, enfeebled by deadly diseases, or struggling to find food?  Are the mortal dangers of climate change in the future, even the imminent future, likely to trouble those who face death, destitution, and pestilence in the here and now?  The panic over the expansion of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which thus far has afflicted some 100,000 people, accounting for something like 3,250 fatalities, has wiped nearly everything else off the news in recent days.  Who is going to be thinking of climate change if the toll from the virus multiplies two-fold, ten-fold, and even twenty-fold in the weeks ahead? Scientific researchers as far back as 2009—and, let there be no mistake, the problem of climate change has increased dramatically in the decade since—had declared that global warming was accounting for 150,000 deaths annually around the world, and in India alone 1.24 million died from toxic air pollution in one single year, 2017.  The Lancet study of pollution in Delhi found that of this figure, 480,000 died from “household pollution related to the use of solid cooking fuels”, and another 670,000 from “air pollution in the wider environment.”  The indisputable fact, though it does not appear as fact to many, is that the toll from global warming already runs into the few millions globally every year.

Yet, even as the grounds for thinking of why a “climate emergency” is called for seem unimpeachably clear, why is it that we should have some misgivings about the use of this phrase? The world has often been inclined to follow the example set by the Americans, who have a penchant for putting everything on a war footing and cannot resist the military metaphor. When there’s an emergency—innocents taken hostage, or, as in the movies, a plot to poison a city’s water supply or wipe out a people by waging a biological attack—the Americans come out with guns blazing. The world has seen the “war on drugs” played out first in American cities, now in a great many places around the world.  It was largely unsuccessful when first initiated in the US and has, in its most recent incarnation in the Philippines, led to wholly indiscriminate and large-scale mafia-style killings by the armed forces of the state, usually of ordinary civilians.  Then came the emergency in the wake of the September 11, 2001 bombings and suddenly the world awoke to the “war on terror”—another colossal failure, judging not from the absence of large-scale terrorist attacks on American soil by “foreign” elements, but from the havoc that this American-initiated war created over large swathes of the Middle East and Afghanistan.  It’s not merely that victory in these wars, whatever that may mean, is unachievable:  what would it mean for the noun “terror” to disappear from the English language, I wonder.  Were the framers of the idea of the “war on terror”, whose war of terror has chalked up all kinds of “collateral damage”, even familiar with the work that a preposition does in the English language?

The “climate emergency”, let us put it this way, is nothing but the call to wage a “war on climate change”, and it has every prospect of producing the same dismal outcomes.  But the idea of “climate emergency” is yet more ominous than the emergencies to which I have adverted and it is potentially fraught with genocidal implications, and not only because there is likely no place in the world which is immune from climate change.  When we consider who the victims of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” have been, “climate emergency” begins to emit the stench that arises when the wealthy purport to act in the name of humanity. The world’s largest per capita carbon dioxide emitters are the major oil producing countries, mainly in West Asia:  Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.  But these countries have very small populations, and their total emissions are a fraction of the total emissions of countries such as the United States, China, India, and Japan.  Through most of the 19th century, the United Kingdom had the lion’s share of the world’s CO2 emissions, as much as nearly 50% at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.  The second half of the 19th would begin to see the emergence of Germany as an imperial power and, even more pointedly, the westward expansion and industrialization of the United States.  By 1887, Britain accounted for about 30% of the global CO2 emissions, and the United States and Germany 28.54% and 15.82%, respectively.  Just three years later, the United States had assumed its position as the world’s leading emitter of CO2, accounting for almost 31% of the world’s total just as Britain’s share would decline to 27.18%, and for well over a century the United States would remain the world’s largest emitter of CO2.

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1857.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser.

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1893.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1946.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser


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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 2017.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

At the end of the war, with Germany and Japan in ruins, and Britain triumphant in spirit but gravely hobbled by the decimation of its cities, the United States lorded it over the world in a manner unprecedented in history.  That the United States was at this time the juggernaut of the world’s industrial production may be gauged by the unusual fact that it was singlehandedly responsible for 54.35% of the world’s CO2 emissions. The American flag did not have to fly over the world as did the Union Jack for the United States to have replaced the United Kingdom and even have surpassed Britain at the height of its power.  Indeed, the United States would have been poised, if the data from 1900-1945 is taken into consideration, to reach the milestone it did at the end of the war by the late 1920s had not the Great Depression shuttered down many manufacturing units and led to a substantial decline in household consumption levels. It would not be until 2006 that China’s emissions would exceed those of the United States, and today China’s emissions are double those of the United States; however, viewed in relation to per capita, China is still responsible for less than half of the CO2 emissions of the United States.  Meanwhile, even if for the once colonized subjects of the global South nostalgia for Europe is not a whit too easy, the declining per capita emissions in countries such as France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, in some cases to a very significant degree, suggest that nations are not always self-aggrandizing but may even veer towards responsibility.

(to be continued)

For Part I, “Climate Emergency:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019”, click here.

Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.


Babasaheb Ambedkar delivering a speech at the mass conversion at Nagpur on 14 October 1956

It should not be supposed that Ambedkar, especially as he continued his studies in both comparative religion and Indian history, never entertained any doubts about the suitability of Buddhism for Dalits.  The predominant understanding of Hinduism, especially in the public domain, insisted upon treating Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as variations on Hinduism, certainly as cognate religions that, to use the language of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, enjoyed a “family resemblance”.  Ambedkar was fully aware that many Hindus were wholly comfortable with the idea of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. It is immaterial, for our purposes, how Ambedkar negotiated this slippery terrain and what views he held on the deviousness of the Hindu mind, and far more germane that he may have understood Buddhism’s putative similarity to Hinduism equally as an asset and a liability.  Dalit converts might benefit from conversion to Buddhism without incurring the hostility of orthodox Hindus:  if the sheer crassness of this analogy may be forgiven, it would be akin to shopping at a different branch of the same gigantic store.  On the other hand, at least in the 1920s and through the 1930s, Ambedkar very much doubted that anything was to be gained by “becoming Buddhist or Arya Samajist” as such conversions would do nothing to eradicate “the prejudices of the people who call themselves as belonging to [the] upper varna”.  The July 1927 article in his journal Bahishkrit Bharat continues thus:  “If we want to successfully confront the prejudices of Hindus, we have to convert to either Christianity or Islam in order to secure the backing of some rebellious community.  It is only then the blot of untouchability on Dalits will be washed away.”  Two years later, writing in the same journal on March 15, Ambedkar put forward the programmatic formula for possible Dalit liberation blandly and without equivocation:  “If you have to convert, become Musulman.”  The communication would be preceded by what some might have taken to be a rather ominous headline, “Notice to Hinduism.”

To what extent increasing Muslim separatism eventually turned Ambedkar away from Islam as a possible home for Dalits is an interesting question.  In arguing that Ambedkar saw Buddhism as singular in its repudiation of caste, I have already suggested the grounds on which he rejected both Sikhism and Christianity as viable alternatives. Nothing more need be said on this count except to aver that, on Ambedkar’s view, neither religion had been able to escape the dragnet of caste; moreover, the hostility of upper-caste Christian converts and Sikh leaders alike to mass conversion, which it was feared would lead to the Dalitization of the faith in each case, was all too palpable. How far one can agree with Ambedkar’s assessment of Sikhism is a question for anyone who is invested in seriously probing why he eventually opted for Buddhism rather than one of the other faiths that had originated in India or taken root in the country’s soil. Just as his understanding of Marx’s views on religion seems rather conventional, shaped partly one might say by the climate of opinion engendered at a time when Stalin’s Soviet Union had made the public profession of religious belief altogether disreputable if not hazardous, similarly one is uncertain how far he had really made a study of Sikhism and its scriptures before coming to a determination that it did not offer Dalits the religious home that he sought for the community.

Whatever benefits the converts to Christianity might have been said to have enjoyed before independence by belonging to the faith of the ruling colonial elite would obviously be short-lived in the wake of the liberation of the country from the yoke of foreign rule.  Muslims in India, on the other hand, enjoyed the security assured to a very sizable and vocal minority—indeed, even as Muslims were a minority in India, Islam was a worldwide religion and Indian Muslims had the power to make their grievances known to Muslims elsewhere in the world.  It rebounded to Islam’s credit that it had a global presence and Ambedkar appears to have held the view that, at least outside India, Islam had shown itself capable of mounting a challenge to social ills.  Muslims in some of these respects offered a stark contrast to Dalits:  if the notion of the Muslim ummah was something of a guarantee that oppression of Muslims would at least not go unnoticed, there seemed to be no one outside India who was prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of the Dalits.


Ambedkar Yatra [Journey]:  Popular or Bazaar Print showing Dr. and Mrs. Ambedkar and the Buddha bestowing his benediction on them.

After all this, Ambedkar still found Islam inhospitable.  There is really no other way to put it, even if the impulse to disguise this sentiment is irresistible.  By the mid-1930s, the Hindu-Muslim question had been rising to the fore and had become much more than a festering sore, and the so-called “Pakistan Resolution”—so-called since Pakistan was never mentioned by name—of the All-India Muslim League, passed at the annual session of the organization at Lahore in March 1940, had spawned in the minds of Muslims the idea that a Muslim homeland in the Indian subcontinent might be theirs for the asking.  This might have been the time to lead his fellow Dalits to the promised land; to the contrary, Ambedkar made a decisive turn away from Islam. There is a noticeable and disturbing streak of positivism in some of his writings, something to which the scholarly assessments of his work have paid no attention whatsoever, but it is to his credit that he was no adherent of Social Darwinism—the very opposite of Vinayak Savarkar, whose lionization by the Hindu right as some kind of thinker and brave soul is laughable and an effrontery to all canons of evidence, reasoning, and common sense.  Had Ambedkar been so, he might have counseled the Dalits to convert to Islam at this opportune moment and add considerably to the already sizable number of Muslims in South Asia.  However, as Muslims sought to close ranks behind them, it had become inescapably clear to Ambedkar that they were so self-absorbed in their own history that any consideration for Dalits could only arise from rank self-interest.  The “Depressed Classes”, he had claimed in late 1930 at the Round Table Conference, “had no friend”:  even the “Muhammadans refuse to recognize their separate existence because they fear that their privileges may be curtailed by the admission of a rival.”

It has been an article of belief for the most loyal Ambedkar scholars that any talk of his antagonism towards Muslims is a form of mischief-making when it is not an expression of virulent misrepresentation and even hatred of the great man.  Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar of formidable reputation who is also married to one of Ambedkar’s granddaughters, attempted to preempt criticisms of Ambedkar’s views on Islam with a short, poorly written, and rather ill-conceived book called Ambedkar on Islam (2003) that purports to take apart eleven “myths”.  Leaving aside the question of whether Teltumbde has any comprehension at all of “myth” outside the rather jejune and positivistic framework which places it in opposition to “history”, the question is whether, as “Myth 1” states, “Ambedkar was against the Muslims.”  Does the critical apparatus of thinking necessitate that one should be against or for something?  That Ambedkar may have formulated a highly critical history of Indian Muslims should come as no surprise and need not be construed as a sign of Islamophobia.  Ambedkar was seldom reticent in his views and in this vein appears to have subscribed to a hierarchy of religions.  He welcomed the discipline of “comparative religion” as it had helped to break down “the arrogant claims of all revealed religions that they alone are true”, but he also found it a matter of discredit to such a “science” that it had “created the general impression that all religions are good and there is no use and purpose in discriminating them.”  It may be inadvisable on the grounds of political expediency to advert to Ambedkar’s critical assessment of Islam, but Ambedkar himself never shirked from adopting positions which he had arrived at after careful study and reflection.

(to be continued)

For Part I, “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, go to:

For Part II, ‘Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion’, go to:


Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

(in multiple parts)

Part II of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

I have argued in the first part of this essay that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalized religion in some form or the other.  What, then, of his relationship to Marx?  In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.  As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule.  He had a more complicated relationship to Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-14.  Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.

Ambedkar continued his studies in economic history, social thought, and sociology over the years, and he accepted most of Marx’s theses about the oppressive nature of capitalism and the inevitability of class struggle even if he found his ideas of historical materialism and what may be called the iron laws of history somewhat rigid and overly determined by Marx’s grounding in the history of the West.  Marx read widely, no doubt, but much of what he had to say of India can be encapsulated under the Asiatic Mode of Production.  (No doubt, too, some of his more rigid defenders will take umbrage at this characterization, but many of Marx’s sources have to read with extreme circumspection.) Besides all this, of course, was the brute fact that, as a Dalit, Ambedkar was assimilated to the experience of oppression from birth.  Books could sharpen his understanding of humiliation and exploitation, and move him to explore what drove men to find satisfaction even enjoyment from degrading others, but he knew firsthand what it meant for a people to be born into poverty, reduced to indignity at every turn, thwarted in every endeavor to improve themselves, and ground into the dust. “Had Karl Marx been born in India and written his famous treatise Das Capital sitting in India,” Ambedkar was to say, “he would have had to write in an entirely different fashion.”  The very first question that Ambedkar might have put to Marx would have most likely been this:  How would the dictatorship of the proletariat contend with caste? Did Marx really have a comprehension of this phenomenon called caste?

The late essay, “Buddha or Karl Marx”, a fragment from a larger book that Ambedkar may have written but the manuscript of which has not been found, offers the reader a keener sense of the shortcomings that he attributed to Marxism and the reasons for his attraction and conversion to Buddhism—all this, perforce, also being the backdrop to his outlook on the history of Islam in India.  We need only to turn to it very briefly.  He argues that little survives of Marxism of the mid-19th century and “much of the ideological structure raised by Karl Marx has broken to pieces.  There is hardly any doubt that [the] Marxist claim that his socialism was inevitable has been completely disproved.”  What remains of the “Marxist creed”, says Ambedkar, can be summarized in a Buddha-like four-fold path:  the function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world; there is class conflict; the private ownership of property entails exploitation and sorrow; and, lastly, as private property is the source of such sorrow, it must be abolished.


Dr. Ambedkar is shown delivering his historic speech, “The Buddha and Karl Marx”, on 20 November 1956 before delegates of the 4th World Buddhist Conference held at Katmandu, Nepal. KIng Mahendra of Nepal (extreme right) and Mrs. Ambedkar are also shown in the photograph.

In the achievement of these objectives, Ambedkar argues, communism commits its gravest sins.  The Marxist creed is addicted to violence and to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  The Buddha, by contrast, was a proponent of ahimsa, but he did not adhere to as rigid a conception of ahimsa as did Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.  To this end, he was more reasonable since he recognized that the use of “force” may be necessitated at times and that it is critical to distinguish between “force as [creative] energy” and “force as violence”.  As for dictatorship, the idea was entirely foreign to the Buddha:  “he would have none of it” and he was a “thorough equalitarian.”  The Buddha and Marx may have sought similar ends, but Ambedkar declares that the Buddhist way is far more efficacious and far more in keeping with notions of human dignity and freedom: “One has to choose between government by force and government by moral disposition.”  The Buddha sought only that each person brought up under his teachings should “become a sentinel for the kingdom of righteousness”, a paragon for others in that he would do what was good not because he had been forced to do so but because his “moral disposition” had shaped him to do the same “voluntarily”.  Ambedkar rounds off the essay with a denunciation of communism’s moral failings with what should by now be recognized as a characteristic affirmation of the centrality of religious life:  “But to the Communists religion is anathema.  Their hatred of religion is so deep-seated that they will not even discriminate between religions which are helpful to Communism and religions which are not.”


The reasons that led Ambedkar to steer clear of Marxism also explain, in part, his turn towards Buddhism. So much has been written on what finally led him to embrace Buddhism that it is unnecessary to visit this terrain except in the briefest terms to clear the path that leads us to his views on Islam.  The Buddha, to reiterate, was to him a figure who was democratic to the core and without peers as a moral exemplar.  In one speech after another, Ambedkar described how his political philosophy was enshrined in three words:  “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” People might naturally imagine that he had derived these values from the French Revolution, but they were mistaken in holding to this conception:  “My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science.  I have derived them from the teachings of my master, not Marx.”  Classical liberal thought compromised on equality, and communism had little regard for liberty:  “It seems that the three can co-exist only if one follows the way of the Buddha.”

(to be continued)

Translated into Swedish by Eric Karlsson and available here: