Shifting Community Virtues
Dev Raj Dahal
Eternal survival of humans as social species rests on their ability to freely associate, learn common interests, live in a community and tune action for collective benefits. The public spirit of community tends healthy interdependence, care, a sense of belonging and implicit rules of conduct, which form the bases of social order. The recognition by Nepali constitution of multi-faith, multi-ethnic and multicultural nation blends communities along these lines where each maintains its identity and enriches the other.
Pre-unification Kathmandu had, however, inspired each group to assimilate into Newari community in a melting pot. Now, the management of uneven distribution of social power and diversity entails shared interests in what Amitai Etzioni calls a cross-cultural “moral framework.” Nepali leaders need to connect the endless social variations and multiple gears of various communities to achieve national goals that they cannot get on their own. One grim fact of today’s political life is that modern elites are alienated from the community considering it dated and looking for private possession. This is robbing the supply of social capital on which democratic polity flourishes. The split of common goods into public and private is atomising the bond of individuals with family, neighbourhoods, community, society and the state.
Similar split of education, media and learning institutions is infecting human sociability and impeding the transition of information society into knowledge and enlightenment. Nepali citizens’ struggle for sovereignty, freedom and dignity lies in affirming what Gautam Buddha says, “Our action creates the world we live in.” Sensible leaders stand to protect countless community cells harnessed by the duties of individuals to them and settle the ironies-rights-based laws and duty-based culture.
Nepalis develop their sense of self in reference to family, heritage, culture, media and the nation which supply them feeling, knowing and perception. They find the fusion of the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies’ Gemeinschaft (inherited community) and Gesellchaft (self-chosen society) in their ties with social, economic and political life and use their abilities to fulfil needs. The coming in life of modern community in Nepal is governed by rational will embodied in rights, interests, expertise and laws like the community of scientists, academics, journalists, ecologists, lawyers, judges, civil servants, doctors, engineers, civil society, etc. Shared profession and codes cultivate their efficacy in pressure politics but not in ethics of rightness.
If S. P. Huntington’s belief that future conflict will be shaped by primordial loyalties to ethnic groups, then natural will is sure to face a clash with the rational will. The surge of geopolitics, populism, nationalism, terrorism, religion and identity politics show signs of insular rationality that divides the humanity and stymies efficacy of national and global community to govern the commons. Now the inherited and self-chosen wills are undergoing change driven by the rise of post-modern society with its emotional, reformist and non-conformist tone.
The narrative of modernity shifted social ties formed by natural will and shaped by duty, tradition, morality, norms, kinship affinity, folkways and religion to rational will fleshed in rational choice, social contract, impartiality and laws. As a child of late capitalism, postmodernity is deconstructing the knowledge, institutions and practices of pre-modern and modern conditions, dissolving loyalties of citizens and creating virtual community of networked cyberspace. It entails the imagined community of political parties, polity and the state to renew social contract of Nepalis at various layers. The shrinkage of open space, common grazing land, playing fields, ponds, rivers, forests, biodiversity, cultural sites, natural buffers, which belonged to the local community, hits the poor.
Driven by rational choice, powerful elites have cut community spirit by accelerating individualisation, family breakdown, massive migration, municipalisation, de-ruralisation of political economy and focus of opportunities in urban nodes and abroad thus weakening the national heritage of community’s support to the voiceless and vulnerable citizens. This support is vital to integrate the bottom and bridge caste, class and gender cleavages. Many gemeinschaft-run initiatives in education, health, irrigation, cooperatives, housing for those in distress, forestry and material goods to organise cultural rituals unite Nepalis and mediate disputes by the council of five elders.
The post-modern culture, as upholders of post-materialist values, directs its discontent against homogenisation, totalisation and universalisation of diverse streams of Nepali life into the glitter of globalisation. Now, Nepali community blending both faith and reason, hugs non-profit institutions and lodges a critical response to unbridled individualism, impersonality, capitalism and its polity. Its ethos defies both free market utopia and the negative effects of modern and post-modern culture on Nepali life.
Associational virtues of Nepalis raise the costs to the ascent of autocracy. The rise of Gesellchaft in Nepal-associations, federations and networks of municipalities, Gaon Palikas, human rights, trade union, business chamber, consumer, irrigation, community forestry, lawyers, women, students, professors, teachers, etc. has lowered the cost of collective action. But in no way they have created a condition for enduring political stability. The erosion of state’s institutional muscles, corrosive partisan effects in their life and frailty to churn the morality of meritocracy of the public institutions in matters of service delivery and realisation of universal rights are waiting for reforms.
The life of Nepali Gemeinschaft has sustained a balance between individualism and a commitment to public goods. As the financial resources of Nepali state are inadequate to fulfil the basic needs, involvement of private, NGOs and voluntary activities in community works, such as education, health, infrastructure, energy, business, drinking water, jobs, etc. is essential for their welfare. Their autonomy from the state is meant for enforcing the accountability to the community in which minority rights are matched with majority rule. As a non-negotiable space, community offers the Nepali polity a chance to interact with local authorities, political parties, civil society, media, interest groups and voluntary associations in public hearing and curb the sinister effects of mega organisations on citizens’ lives.
The community values hone the economy of affection easing citizen participation in the productive activities. It aids the spiritual, ethical, ecological, social and political ethics and prevents the fear of oppression and cultural cringe. The gush of Jayatu Sanskritam in the past and Guthi movement now has rediscovered what is vital to harness community resilience. Cultural awareness of Nepali communities is growing at home and abroad opening many Gemeinschalfts of diasporas and of Tharu, Newar, Gurung, Magar, Teli, Yadav, Khas, Thakali, etc. It is easing socialisation enabling Nepalis to become rational and autonomous, in-group social capital formation and an interface with the Gesellchaft which surged as a need to push right-based discourse, renew social bonds and public life.
Nepali leaders have to restore common sense wisdom to politics and build citizens’ civic competence in multi-task engagement. One way is public knowledge about community affairs. The other is freeing multilevel polity from the fear of capture and manipulation. Only then voting makes a good citizen and increases the circle of empathy beyond afno manchhe (tribal loyalty) to constitutional patriotism.
Active citizens are daily involved in public affairs of community, attach to the polity and overcome the unconcern to political life stoked by rising expectations generated by leaders and the shortfall of governance. This evokes some agonising questions: how does the value of Nepali citizenship survive the pressure of globalisation of awareness, education and better opportunities abroad than staying at home? How can community be able to restore civic pride in its social and political system and engage in national reconstruction? At a time when private money plays an influential role in public affairs rather than one person, one vote, only the revival of public realm, repairing solidarity and strengthening the sphere of social justice can attend public interest.
The dawn of duty in Nepal can provide a hope for bolstering national community, the state, which can deal efficiently the macro issues of public concern like poverty, violation of human rights, civil conflicts, ecocide, imbalance of minority’s representation and deprivation of the majority from sustainable livelihoods. Social bonds are well connected with nature and ritual performance of citizens to hone shared commitment to peaceful life. With altruistic yearning, Nepali community of all hues had performed peace rituals for conflict and earthquake victims. Intra-religious activities for peace have built a modicum of trust for cooperative action and sought to de-legitimize political violence.
The elite revolution has let the majority of Nepalis suffer from context-free individualism that is aspiring for the warmth of community. Social ills like moral anarchy, political corruption, gender violence, decay of public institutions, crime, joblessness, drug abuse, etc. are too high a cost for civic order. In this context, Nepali leaders have a moral duty to bequeath for the posterity a habitable place fit to be lived in. Nepalis relish cultural and social diversity and tolerate many worldviews, beliefs and practices as a source of national resilience. Local effort to shore up community virtues can make it competitive to cope with the globalisation challenges and multi-level tension on core public issues such as finance, personnel, skill, infrastructure and leadership.
A robust multi-level governance with rules, regimes, leadership and institutions is vital to manage diversity and enforce the integrity and duty of leaders. It is only with the conscience of community that public figures can provide a role model for the Nepalis. But elected leaders need to come out of self-enclosed world of ad and stand above the circle of relatives, followers and clients that indulge them in patronage expansion, not public works beneficial to all citizens. The triumph of community life lies in its members’ common policy orientation unbounded by partisan interests and profits but willingness to commit human and financial capital for common good. The growth of innovative social institutions and entrepreneurships helps modernise public spirit of communities and build their basic decency.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)