Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Internal Criticism in the Democracies outside the West

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Internal Criticism in the Democracies outside the West

Article excerpt

Democracy requires criticism. A significant feature of democracies outside the West, though often ignored by liberal traditions of analysis, is the practice of internal criticism. This article examines some experiences of internal criticism that may be found in the writings of some Indian philosophers, focusing especially on the work of Swami Vivekananda. KEYWORDS: democracy, criticism, tradition, India, Vivekananda


It is no doubt a sociological fact that Indian democracy, like the Indian nation analyzed by Partha Chatterjee, (1) is derived from Western conceptions of democracy. The problem with this claim, however, arises less from the claim itself than from the caveats that must be added to it, which are both arduous and lengthy. The process of adding caveats was already started by Chatterjee himself when he added a question mark to the title of the book in which this claim is made. This article seeks to add one more caveat by pointing out that there are certain aspects of democracy in India, and specifically the internal criticism of society that is present in some contemporary Indian thought, that vary from the standard liberal discourses on democracy.

Criticism is one of the important hallmarks of democratic sys tems. While consensus and the articulation of a majority might sustain democratic practices, it is criticism that ultimately enables the healthy functioning of democracy. Indeed, we can say that consensus and criticism are the two opposing but creative forces that keep democracy going.

The character and role of consensus and majority rule has undergone considerable scrutiny, especially since Locke's romantic assumption that majorities decision should ultimately prevail because majorities commit no errors was challenged by John Stuart Mill's denunciation of the tyranny of the majority. Attempts have especially been made to formulate ways of safeguarding the rights of minorities. In my view, however, it would be better to think less about any minority than about those who fall outside a majority. This would permit the debate to go beyond the limited vocabularies of protectionism, magnanimity, or even wise obligation, and encourage consideration of the ways in which those who are outside a majority have contributed, even if negatively, to the formation of a majority, and can become a future resource for democratic politics. Those outside the majority need not be characterized as the "other", but as constituting the positive and structural resources available for the formation of the "self." Here we might use the Buddhist epistemology that maintains that knowledge consists not in knowing what is but in knowing what is not. The purview of what is not is more extensive and puts more demands on the knower, demands that might humble him or her, than of the specifically locatable what is. In fact, I will argue here, we can sustain democracy in India not only through a liberal epistemology based on empirical claims about reality, but also through the Buddhist epistemology alluded to above, which would permit the restoration, through a strategy of inversion, of a more credible place for those outside the fold of Indian society, both in the past and in the present. I will develop this argument through a discussion of a crucial structural feature of democracy, namely, criticism. More specifically, I will address three modes of criticism--criticism as rejection, self-criticism, and internal criticism--and then examine some of the distinguishing features of contemporary Indian discussions of the practices of internal criticism.

Criticism and Self-Criticism

Liberals have tended to be empiricist in their underlying epistemology, maintaining that there are no absolute truths and that knowledge depends on a capacity for verification or falsification. They have also stressed the importance of dissent. We must provide for dissent, they have argued, because no one is the repository of truth. …

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