Politics as a mediating act in society, notwithstanding its various definitions and descriptions, is not only a multidimensional activity; it is multivocal too. Thus, relativism lies at the core of the ‘political’. It is because politics comes to life when we interact with one another and confront others’ ideas, perspectives, opinions and values on issues of common concern.
Communication being a social process of meaning generation carved out of such interactions, multivocality among numerous interlocutors is absolutely indispensable in the process. Politics with its simultaneous thrust on control, negotiation and bargaining, has communication as its source, content and on occasions, even as goal. Yet, in the contemporary era, amidst much hype about the Information Age and Communication Revolution, the great paradox lies in the contraction of the communicative space insofar as politics is concerned. The ‘subalterns’ (a la Gayatri Spivak) can speak, the members of the ‘political society’ (a la Partha Chatterjee) do act and the ‘counterpublic’ (a la Nancy Fraser et al) do communicate, as various segments of the ordinary people— marginalized and excluded. However, the dominant hegemonic forces, with leverage over the dominant modes of communication, tend to ensure that the marginal and the excluded and their struggle for articulation remain both invisible and inaudible. This brings us to the complex and sensitive issue of the communicative dimensions of alternative politics.
The main contention of this essay rests on two contending and contrasting concepts— ‘Global Village’ and ‘Another World’. The shrill rhetoric of Global Village, sponsored by the dominant political economic forces having overwhelming control over the distribution of wealth and power in the world, seeks to steamroll and marginalize the different and dissenting voices while the cry for ‘Another World’ privileges multiple and differentiating voices. The latter, notwithstanding the hurdles that we would mention in the ensuing discussion, is of much importance because it takes us away from the pessimism which arises, as in the case of Rajni Kothari, out of the idea that there is an “erosion of alternatives at different thresholds of human enterprise”.
The problematic idea of the Global Village— originally conceptualized in the early 1960s by Marshall McLuhan, the maverick sociologist, in The Gutenburg Galaxy, and extended beyond its original attributes by the shakers and movers of the so-called New World Order, is not only found on a global scale among the powers that be— the political class and the bureaucracy. Paradoxically, it is also much prevalent among a large section of social science scholars, including, most ironically, among those specializing in (Political)Communication Studies. In their search for the disciplinary status and in seeking to emulate the more rigorous social science disciplines the scholars of Communication Studies have unleashed a process of ‘disciplining’ which in turn has steadily divested them of the ability to reveal the complexities of ‘alternative’ communicative forms, symbols and relations— marked by as varying issues as human capacities, practices, styles, strategies, languages, discourses and images.
The ancillary contention of this essay is that the search for the transformatory axes in politics cannot be realized by any ready-made ‘alternative’ as it can only happen through painstaking nurturing of different and diffused non-dominant/ non-mainstream communication channels which question and contest the dominant order of things. Harold Lasswell, though by no means a scholar of alternatives, in a classic essay on “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society” (1948), had provided a pioneering formulation of political communication by advancing a set of apparently simple but extremely potent questions: “Who said what when and how?”. Keeping in mind that ‘alternative’ is a contested and somewhat slippery term, when we embark on the visualization of politics beyond the dominant- mainstream forms we can extend the Lasswellian formulation to pose the moot question: whose order is it any way?. In their long and relentless efforts to theorize politics the social scientists in general have been excessively long the Positivist-Empiricist mode and the Modernization Imperative in which the contesting modes are regarded as illegitimate or redundant. In this mode political communication was mainly understood in terms of voting behaviour and campaign styles. The communicative foundation that supported such exercise was based on a linear model of information diffusion— often described as the Bullet Theory— by which the people are supposed to be the passive target-cum-recipients of the messages sent by the political actors. In this scheme the subtler forms of “manufacturing consent” were not addressed. The later postmodern influence, notwithstanding its tirade against the centralization of power and the Bullet theory, has not brought a radical change in the prevailing scenario because in its denial of the grand narrative it does not address the mechanics of any macro order.
In the days of the inequitable globalization we increasingly hear the announcement of the “death of utopia” and the “end of history”, which emerges not only from the act of colonization of the political and economic institutions but also of the aesthetic and expressive faculties as well (Sinha, 2010). The latter breeds “monoculture of the mind”. The Global Village project not only effects material exclusion of the vast majority of people it also leads to symbolic exclusion which is effected through the denial of the “power of renaming”. The very idea of the Global Village is much hyped because it perfectly serves the interests of the globally dominant political forces to hide the tremendous disparities and discriminations. Who says that discriminations do not exist in village?
It necessarily follows that any meaningful and effective exploration of the possible and plausible alternatives to the fast-paced construction of the Global Village needs a simultaneous focus on the role of communication both as a facilitator of status quo and as a means of change. As a power-laden process of meaning generation and meaning circulation, through which the ‘reality’ is constantly produced, maintained, transferred and transformed, the process of communication, on the one hand, facilitates production and reinforcement of the dominant order; on the other hand, it also gives birth to and intensifies what we would prefer to call the zones of exclusion— both material and symbolic— of the dominant scenario to provide clues to possible routes of transformation.
In this backdrop the need of the hour is to be aware of the dangers of the ‘ritual’ communication— which enforces ‘voluntary’ submission to ‘appropriately’ patterned behaviour— by exploring ways and means to critique and subvert the high-pitched process of mainstreaming. But it has to be done by being in the mainstream and not by disengaging from the prevalent order or by engaging in a head-on-collision wit it. Here we have in mind the “De-linking” thesis suggested by Samir Amin and the “cultural dissociation” thesis advocated by Cees Hamelink— both of whom had once advocated detachment respectively from the prevalent international economic order and international communication order but later revised their stance to explore alternatives from within the prevailing order itself( Amin,2003; Hamelink, 1994). Their earlier theses, so to say, were radical and attractive but impractical. If the successive protest movements against the current show of globalization raise the possibility of a “new dawn” in the struggle for alternatives they remain overwhelmingly struggles not only by communication but in communication. If communication is the infrastructural backbone of the discriminatory mainstream politics it would remain so for progressing towards any viable alternative global order as well. The fundamental distinction between the two cases would be that in the mainstream form— as illustrated by the idea of Global Village— a singular kind of communication ‘order’ is being promoted, but the search for alternative politics should rely on diverse orders which question the mainstream politics.
Then again, the task ahead is not easy. Thus, Tejaswini Niranjana aptly observes: “Within the new globalization, the paths to the first world will be more clearly defined than ever, rendered easier to traverse. Other locations on the map will appear all the more blurred, all the more difficult to reach.” [Italics mine]. Then again, as we have hinted earlier, the issue of alternative is not a simple one and any attempt to address this issue should avoid simplistic and facile generalizations. At the core of this issue lies the question of alterity of alternatives. In most studies on alternative modes, in the zeal to produce one, the alterity question is not addressed adequately, if at all, with the result that in these studies there is some kind of taken-for-grantedness about the specific kind of alternative being advocated.
If alterity connotes difference from particular others, did the alternatives that are being regarded as so, have sufficient alterity in the sense of having completely different constitutive rationale and order? Or are they basically trying to advocate a supposedly alternative order on the basis of the same constitutive logic, say of development? If, for instance, the erstwhile socialist countries wanted to constitute an “alternative social order” by following the capitalism-friendly logic of industrialism and technologism, could that ever ensure the alterity of the much-publicized alternative? A detailed discussion of this predicament of the received socialist paradigm is beyond the scope of this note but we need to refer to it as an important case to substantiate the point.
To reiterate, the translation of the imaginary of Another World to reality is to be fraught with caution. Let us take just two instances while there are many more to substantiate the point. First, the case of the World Social Forum (WSF). At the ground level this is quite evident in the successive meets of the WSF numerous voices, often in conflict and contention with each other, came under one rubric to usher in dialogue on “Another World is Possible”. The defining feature of the WSF was aptly described by Samir Amin, one of its prime exponents, in this manner: “We have to look at what is new in a different way”. With the participation of the trade unions, peasant organizations, women’s organizations, youth organizations, indigenous people’s organizations, non-government organizations, voluntary agencies and so forth— all coming together without any compulsive desire for codification of the discourses on dissent— the WSF served as a platform for the articulation of a breathtaking range of views. Yet, in course of time the WSF has been subject to criticism that it has been co-opted by the mainstream forces and in the process it has been blunted. The criticism includes the point that a number of participants in the WSF were there to raise the bogey of ‘alternative’ to get funding.
In the academic arena there is the need to accord greater thrust towards viewing ordinary people as potentially ‘active actors’, rather than passive, obliging masses. No less important, the stress should also be on the tentative and ‘unfolding’ nature of explanations as distinct from ‘complete’ and instantaneous ones. Departing from the third world social scientists’ frustration, caused by the fall of the erstwhile ‘model’ socialist states and the decline in the Non-Aligned movement, which as we have mentioned earlier, would lead even Rajni Kothari, a pioneering critique of the mainstream order, to lament the ‘world without alternatives’ there is a gradual realization that where there is dominance, there is resistance. The old adage incidentally may well be the mantra of alternative politics for nor just challenging but reshaping the existing world, privileging the celebration of human agency and creativity— with the amplification of the voice of the marginal as the point of departure.
Amin, Samir, “For Struggles, Global and National: Interview with Samir Amin”, Frontline, 31 January, 2003..
Boyd Barrett, Oliver, “Global Communication Orders” in William N. Gudykunst and Bella Mody eds., Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication, Sage, Thousand Oaks, 2002, pp.325-42.
Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri , “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan Education, Basingstoke, 1988, pp. 271-313.
Chatterjee, Partha, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in most of the World, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2004.
Fraser, Nancy, Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1992.
Hamelink, Cees, The Politics of World Communication: A Human Rights Perspective, Sage Publications, London, 1994..
Kothari, Rajni, “The Yawning Vacuum: A World without Alternatives”, Economic and Political Weekly, 29 May, 1993, pp.1100-1107.
Lasswell, Harold, “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society” in L. Bryson ed., The Communication of Ideas, Institute for Religious and Social Studies, New York, 1948.
Niranjana, Tejashwini, “Alternative Frames? Questions for Comparative Research in the Third World”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies: Movements, Volume 1, No.1, 2000, pp.97-108.
Sinha, Dipankar, “Communication: The Challenges of Globalization, Information Society, Identity and Development” in Yogendra Singh ed., Social Sciences: Communication, Anthropology and Sociology, Pearson Longman/Centre for Studies in Civilizations, Delhi, 2010, pp. 231-247.