ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Myriad Senses of Powerlessness


In the context of liberal democracy, political observations that are indicative of the paradox of power relations have become a cliché. Put clearly, common people who constitute the most significant political entity, however, are, in a constitutional sense, supposed to possess the voting power to make and unmake a government. In actual practice, these people do lack the power that is necessary to control the government that is likely to rely on hackneyed promises which yield only public illusion. At another end of the spectrum of powerlessness, there are those who, in fact, are politically powerful but pretend to be powerless. In the first case, it is an element of illusion of being powerful that forms the part of the democratic paradox while in the second it is the deceptive sense of pretension that is constitutive of the suggested paradox. Public intellectuals are yet another entity on this spectrum who, arguably, consider them­selves as the most powerful opinion shapers and who, by virtue of this power, tend to believe that they can at least problematise the political questions that explain the lack of well-being of the common masses. But such is the contemporary political scenario that they also find themselves to be powerless, that is, they are not in a position to avoid the de-problematisation of political issues that, due to public illusion and the pretension of the powerful political personality, fail to occupy the frontal position.

Although there is a spectrum of powerlessness, it is necessary to make the distinction between these three cases. For example, those who claim to be powerless through public posturing in fact deliberately manufacture such a self-image. In such cases, unlike the vast majority of people who are really powerless, it is a pleasure for the political leaders to pretend to be powerless. The claim to be powerless gives pleasure because it depends on the safety and the guarantee of such a safety to a political leader.

In this regard, it is important to keep in mind that pretensions of such a kind do have a flip side. Pretension, which is expressed through the act of moral posturing to become small or powerless, does not become available unless a society is filled with a mass of powerless human beings. The pretension to be powerless becomes valid only in the concrete condition when the majority of the people are actually powerless. Thus, pretension, in an ironical sense, offers the moral standard by which it is possible to acknowledge the reality that people indeed are powerless.

It is needless to mention that those who are powerless in terms of their everyday experience of coping with—if not transcending—their harsh conditions are subjected to enduring pain. They do not have the pleasure to pretend to be powerless. It would be absurd if they do so. They, indeed, are incapable of such a pretension. But what has been true with these unpretentious lot is the element of deception. They are capable of deceiving themselves. They feel deceptively powerful because they are made to believe that they are the most powerful entities in a democracy on the election day.

Under the spell of deception, the common people seldom ask the right questions which can therefore yield the right answers. For example, they do not ask the most fundamental question to the pretentious political leaders—including those who look for defection—“if you are really powerless, how come I do not have the same safety and security that you enjoy, or how come I do not have the same amount of assets and property as you have?” If they were indeed powerful, they would ask the right kind of questions to the members of the governing class, and seek the right kind of answers for their questions. But this does not seem to happen in the majority of the cases.

In a liberal democracy, the rhetoric of “power to the people” suffers from an internal contradiction. The voters do have the power to elect a particular party but the use of such a power also results in choosing the wrong candidates who, in some significant cases, have the desire to become the potential defector. Thus, the voters are both powerful and powerless as they cannot do anything to discipline the elected leaders—particularly the defector—who, along with the engineers of defection, are eminently qualified to abuse the values of democracy. Engineering defection of not just the elected representatives but the political judgment of a vast number of people has become, at least for some parties, the main route to hold onto the strings of power.

The common people are given into enjoying the drama of defection that is staged by some television channels. This leaves very little space for the intellectuals to make a dent into such a frustratingly as well as maliciously deceptive political situation. Frustrating, because common people do not seem to be patient enough to integrate normative thought with their act of choosing the right candidate. It is maliciously deceptive because politics seems to have become overwhelmed by the power of pretension.


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Updated On : 27th Jul, 2022
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