The Laws of Social Thermodynamics
on solidarity, community, and action
So, we’re perched up on the balcony; July heat, afternoon Sun and all. Entrenched in our chairs, blazing our brains away. And I ask,
‘What brings people to a protest?’
My brother, more of a veteran in the activism world than me, says something to the effect of:
‘Ah, you know…people coming together, strength in numbers…’
Manipur burning. It’d been on the stove for a while now; the litany of lynching, riots, arson, sexual assault, and deaths were causing concern across the country. But in all honesty, the issues seemed like a purely Manipuri issue; between the Kukis, Meiteis, and others living there; between the Manipuri government and the Manipuri people. And perhaps the Central government. All (most of) the rest of us could do was express our thoughts and prayers, our concern and solidarity with the people suffering from the madness.
Solidarity was what was going to be displayed on the steps of the city’s Town Hall later that afternoon. Solidarity was what my brother invited me for; to join the vigil. I hadn’t been to many protests before. I knew I’d run into some of my friends at the site. And I knew it was about time I took a more proactive approach to all this. So, I consented.
The Sun is hazing the Earth though, as we remain perched upon the balcony, inflicting smoke and stupor on ourselves. And in that state of mind, thinking about standing in the sweltering heat, and the dustbowl of afternoon traffic to protest just feels laborious. But I tell myself to be tougher than that.
History moves through people coming together; the French Revolution, the Salt March, the March to Washington, the Suffragettes, even the Arab Springs before they hit the UNO reverse on that. My mind cycled through all such grandiose nationally seismic events; their gravity can suck in unwilling participants too. And they are perfectly fine. But what about the granular gatherings, small pockets of activism that occur here, there, everywhere, that most people will remain indifferent to, and governments disdainful if not hostile?
How do people summon the spirit and inspiration to fight these uphill political battles?
For most people do not feel politically significant. It is why populism and resentment towards ‘the establishment’, towards representational democracy rose last decade. But true political ostracization entails tangible violence and suffering for those excluded. To understand it, perhaps, we can look to someone who experienced such ordeal first-hand, someone who bore witness to the spiralling madness the injustices on her people led to.
Hannah Arendt lived for a period as a stateless person, a refugee in France and then in the US. Before that, she lived in Weimar Germany, as a person of Jewish heritage. You can see the predicaments she found herself in.
The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) is a gospel of social science; detailed, descriptive case studies of the totalitarian states of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany; of antisemitism and imperialism. Arendt observed totalitarianism to be a new beast in the machine that was the modern industrial nation-state. A transformation that’s touched every corner of Earth today. In the geopolitical mania that shrouded Europe back in the early 20th Century, feining for power led to some like the Nazis and the Soviets maxing out its use and abuse. To call it authoritarianism would be wrong, Arendt would state, for authoritarianism only chases absolute political power so that there be no opposition; but the totalitarians want to dominate all aspects of life, the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and the cultural.
Arendt observed that Modernity left people feeling alienated. The alienation of labour, the rat race, of the concrete jungle, and the alienation from one’s fellow citizens in a world whose affairs feel increasingly out of one’s control. It breeds a loneliness ripe for exploitation. In search of meaning, then, people gravitate towards ideologies and dogmas. And they slowly sink their totalitarian roots into the collective psyche. The totalitarian regime then shuts down any thinking and forces their worldview as a panacea of the people.
Natural to say people lose all scope of free speech and action. For as Arendt would build upon and illustrate in The Human Condition (1958), (free) speech and action entail the highest form of human activity. In the times of the Ancient Greeks and the Romans, as she would contend, these luxuries were jealously guarded by aristocratic landowning males. They were the citizens of their civilizations. Everybody else, women, slaves, the landless, and children were persona non grata. They could partake in labour and work, but action that was the domain of citizens.
Action, including speech, in Arendt’s conception occurred in the context of human plurality; it attains meaning when done in front of others. It is what gives people a sense of narrative meaning in their lives. And you can’t have that if you’re the only person on Earth. Your life and all their milestones, school, graduation, college, job, marriage, and the lovely neighbourhood your new fledgling family moves into only have meaning because of all the other people you share it with. Action affirms your individuality and agency, it tells the story of your life.
Now, the totalitarians rob people of all such meaning, forcing them instead to deepthroat whatever garbage they peddle instead. But totalitarians are extreme cases. These are democratic days for more countries than ever before. The equality, fraternity, and peerage of the Ancient Athenians are now supposed to be enjoyed by all men and women, nobody’s to be a bonded slave, and all that. Except all our asses don’t fit in parliament, so we have to choose representatives instead. So we have to build a machine that manages all our rights and privileges.
Arendt saw that happening. She pointed out that mass society in Modern Industrialized nation-states, democratic or otherwise, became management bodies. Bodies that manage the population, the people. Compromise, homogeneity and bureaucracy define this existence more than ‘free action’. For the majority of citizens labour and work are always there, but action appears more like an abstract concept, if not pre-fixed scripts like say career climbing, marriage, having children, holidays, and hobbies.
It’s a slippery slope to totalitarianism that even the most democratic of nations have lurking in their subconscious. For even democratic nations have bureaucracies, police and hierarchies. If you notice, for most of us, the frustration at feeling politically irrelevant is more like a scratch than a gash. It keeps itching in the back of your head as you go through life as the power of the machine seems so abstruse, and stifling.
I was an intern at Amnesty International India in their twilight days. Perhaps the writing was on the wall already, for the office kept getting raided on charges of misuse of foreign funds and donations. They were accusing Amnesty of money laundering. Ridiculous. They couldn’t have laundered a piggy bank if they wanted to.
Human rights is a tough business because every government and every state finds it an offence if they are criticized for not treating people well. It’s an uncomfortable space because it deals with the uncomfortable truth that Hannah Arendt observed; the imperfection of society, and the substitution of pure freedom of speech and action for consensus building and enforced conformity. As for those slipping through the cracks. the state would rather they slip under the carpet than have their voices aired.
It seems like there will always be an underclass, or a group receiving the short end of the deal. Almost like a universal law. And it is always an uphill battle to fight the status quo. I was frustrated when I left the organization because it all felt like thankless and fruitless work at times.
A year later when the state finally managed to smother Amnesty International India into oblivion, there was also a military coup in Burma, with the 10 years of democracy they experienced feeling like an aberration. The Burmese girl living on the floor above, in our Bohemian post-Soviet dormitory, lost her shit. She lit up social media, pouring out her frustration, angst, and sorrow; posts on posts all politically charged.
The Burmese lost a bright one to the brain drain.
I felt stupid and spoilt for thinking so defeatedly. For way back when Amnesty International India still functioned, that in itself was a big deal. For that in itself was the privilege of space, never mind keeping score, at least we were playing. How privileged I felt still that back home we still had the democratic franchise. Our Judiciary, Parliament and Executive, despite all the encroaching and compromise, somehow hanging tooth and nail retained their constitutional independence.
Just about somehow.
Roundabout the same time, there was tectonic dissent brewing across India. It was partly regarding the same issue that I had been working on in Amnesty. The anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests spread across all the metropoles and the big cities. The state versus the people. I saw through the looking glass of cyberspace, through FB posts and IG stories, the havoc. Massive resistance from all kinds of quarters at the two sneaky legislations effectively attempting to stop Muslim and Christian immigrants in India from attaining citizenship.
Political machinations on the same wavelength as the National Socialists way back when in Germany. The machinations that Hannah Arendt observed led to the spiral towards totalitarianism. Fortunately though, somehow the Indian institutions were tough enough to withstand and push back against this authoritarian establishment bigotry. And while the courts, the bureaucracy, the federal constellation of states, the assemblies and parliament, and the media, all played their part both for and against, the biggest bulwark was the protest camps and events organized by the people themselves.
Because Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta, Chennai, Hyderabad, and many more towns had people come together. The neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi was a synecdoche of country-wide exercise of people exercising political speech and action. Arendt’s highest. In defiance of the chauvinistic decisions of the pretenders occupying the highest office. The ghetto became a centre stage of resistance. The protestors involved students, workers, the young, and the old, all went in hard. 24/7. They went Gandhian. All Satyagraha. It became a buzz of activity; art and graffiti, speeches, lectures, poetry recitations, and readings. Even music performances. Celebrities and opposition politicians, photo ops. Children came to the protest site after their schooling hours. Possibly getting schooled in the practical nature of civic action.
But such action is dangerous. Because it upsets the apple cart on which the power-hungry and the corrupt stew. And it calls for reactionary actions. Protesting students and faculty at Jamia Milia Islamia were invaded and assaulted by the police. It was ugly. And then later the students and faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University; except this time it was a band of fifty-odd miscreants armed with sticks and rods, with chief instigators belonging to a certain student union, affiliated to the ones who sat manipulating the state machinery. People came and shot at the protesting crowd, to be later out on bail. In fact, Shaheen Bagh, the site where kids were being read lessons from the Constitution, and old ladies sat knitting sweaters (I presume), had someone come and let pop a couple of shots.
I saw through the looking glass the wrath of the state exacted on a free people; I saw my friends participate, and I heard of them being assaulted and harassed by cops. I saw the sloppy authoritarian effort to inch towards totalitarianism, and the slippery slope leading there. I saw the praxis of Arendt’s Vita Activa, and how human plurality energized and galvanized those who chose to partake.
But then just as the headlock between the people and the pretenders was in the thick of it. ‘Big State’ got handed a Deus Ex Machina.
The Covid-19 Pandemic. Nobody liked it. Except perhaps those monopolizing the power of crowd control. But it was genuinely for public safety, so there’s that. Nonetheless, as was seen through what unfolded next around the world. The physical wreckage caused by the virus aside, psychologically the world entered a dark state of mind. Angst, depression, and loneliness lurked the air, curfews and lockdowns becoming modus operandi.
People need plurality, instead, sterility is what we got. Socializing had become an issue. People retreated into their own homes and Zoom calls, poor substitutes in the ice age. I had the good fortune of being in a dormitory. Packed with other people at a time of our lives when action is all we chase, or at least even the illusion of it. But it was disillusionment all around.
We grappled with opening and shutting down life with the ebb and flow of infection rates, waves on waves of the ‘novel coronavirus’ waging war against us. So people started to take clandestine action very consciously. Clandestine parties in dorm rooms, kitchens, and hallways. People started their cute little irrational rebellions of socialization. It was then I got to observe the Laws of Social Thermodynamics.
That people will seek out the company of others, less a sickly demented melancholy grab a whole of them when they are all alone. Most of our lives have meaning because of others around us, we draw meaning, energy and will from it. Keeping apart the slices of the population who are trying to maintain a Buddhist detachment or the ones preferring solitude as a rule of thumb, the lion’s share of the populace likes, and needs, the company of other people.
Isolation is what was forced upon us. Not voluntary solitude. The loneliness led to discontent. People split over the science, the policies, the restrictions and solutions. Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and conspiracy theories. Misinformation and hoaxes. The World Health Organization’s reputation didn’t come through untouched either.
The pressure to keep things open where I spent the Pandemic years was great, leading to stretches of months of relaxed social contract terms allowing life to get back out. Everybody came back with a vengeance. Revenge shopping is what some called it. People out and about spending, spending, spending. Trying to have a good time. All across the world. “Goblin mode” was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2022 word of the year.
Stepping out of house arrest and digital simulations, there was a visceral layer of excitement and electricity as the social activities resumed. Tribal, corporeal energy washing over sidewalks and shops, cafes and kiosks, house parties, and club parties. Festivals and celebrations. Or even if you just stepped outside for a walk just by yourself.
But then again, the ‘novel coronavirus’ would rally a charge, and the constraints would come down again. We all fell into a spectrum of treatment there. The Chinese notoriously enforced draconian lockdowns, keeping the angst-ridden deprived population on house arrest. Elsewhere, citizens managed to bully the state into relinquishing control and reinstating freedom. Elsewise, they’d riot like the Dutch.
I returned to Bangalore, at the twilight of everybody’s fucks being given to the ‘novel coronavirus’. The city had recently shaken off the latest round of lockdown. Lockdowns in India were supposed to be tough and testing. And now all the town was down to get around.
‘People been real pent up. It’s all erupting now…’
Or some such was the comment my friend made, as we took refrains from the revelling that we were in the middle of. A nightly outing at one of the city’s joints serving some cantankerous beats for everybody to blow steam. Strobe lights and smoke on the floor where the crowd stood jingling jangling courtesy of the DJ. The self-indulgence spread across the dinner tables, the bars, the shops outside, and all over the street.
Much joy in things returning to ‘normal’. Except for the fact, that the ‘big state’ slipped in some clauses, they thought would fly. In the stockpiling restrictions enacted to fight the pandemic, the government took the opportunity to prohibit people’s right to protest in the city. The Licensing and Regulation of Protests, Demonstrations and Protest Marches (Bengaluru City) Order, 2021. Traffic and public disturbance were ofc the excuses. People could now only coagulate in Freedom Park, and the freedom it gave people was from the vision of the public, hidden away as it was in an urban cul-de-sac of activity.
The shops and restaurants opened. But the streets remained shut. They thought people wouldn’t notice.
I know now that a protest isn’t a party. You can’t show up fashionably late. Or lethargically late. My brother, our cousin and I observed from the opposite side, that the protest had peaked already. Although there was still a layer cake of folks swarming the steps of Town Hall. Surrounded by bovine-looking law enforcers, and some inquisitive press people.
Sri Puttanachetty Town Hall has been one of the fan favourite sites for popular mobilization. Slap bang in one of the city’s chakras, onlooking KR Market. AKA City Market. A dusky ivory neoclassical building gifted to the town by the Wadiyars. The Tuscan pillars and the crowd assembled, in full display of the busy market and the traffic, the civic spirit was contagious. Realpolitik dictated that the state government, now run by a different political party than the one in the central government, looked the other way. Especially since Manipur was also run by the party at the centre. All the details didn’t matter though, for it was what it was.
It was a Town Hall protest.
We merged into the crowd. My brother found some of his crew and began fraternizing. Our cousin tagged along with him. I, meanwhile, encountered a barrage of “Wow, how punctual!”, “You missed most of it…” and other such castigations from my friends still in the crowd. I was then given a poster to brandish to the camera in the front still capturing a line of people who evidently did not want to give up on the sloganeering just yet. I learnt afterwards I was telecasting words to the effect of asking the Manipur chief minister to resign. I agreed ofc, I mean that would be the honourable thing to do, for clearly, he took an L. He failed his rajdharma.
For the hard-hearted and the cynical, this would appear to be a bit futile. What effect will the noise created by people in a city have on the cesspool of violence 3000 plus kilometres? True, actual impact would have to be acutely locational. But the thing about protests, strikes, and perhaps solidarity the most is that they operate on the laws of social thermodynamics. Perhaps to some of those suffering, the fact that people around the country are expressing their empathies and sympathies will act as a tiny tonic. It’s definitely better than cold indifference and radio silence.
It’s like Hannah Arendt stated, speech and action. The highest form. They are not given to everyone, one has to take it, or inherit the privilege from someone who did. When cooperation breaks down, like in Manipur; or when the closeted totalitarians usurp the levers of power; speech and action are, what come under threat. So as much as the solidarity vigil was for Manipur, it was also for the city itself. Or, as the good humour and the infectious zeal percolating the air had the people on the steps murmuring:
“We’ve taken back Town Hall”