The Limitations and Weaknesses of the Political Leadership of Modern Day States

The language of politics, everywhere in the world, tends to express noble ideals about what direction is best and how the society can be enhanced and benefited by giving a particular leadership the reins of government.  It is of course also possible that a government can gain control, not by appealing to the best and highest, but by appealing to the lowest and basest instincts, fears and prejudices of the society.  In some cases, even these base reactions are couched in language of noble purpose.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…the modern politician in any part of the world…does not represent the soul of a people or its aspirations.  What he does usually represent is all the average pettiness, selfishness, egoism, self-deception that is about him and these he represents well enough as well as a great deal of mental incompetence and moral conventionality, timidity and pretence.  Great issues often come to him for decision, but he does not deal with them greatly; high words and noble ideas are on his lips, but they become rapidly the claptrap of a party.  The disease and falsehood of modern political life is patent in every country of the world and only the hypnotised acquiescence of all, even of the intellectual classes, in the great organised sham, cloaks and prolongs the malady, the acquiescence that men yield to everything that is habitual and makes the present atmosphere of their lives.  Yet is is by such minds that the good of all has to be decided, to such hands that it has to be entrusted, to such an agency calling itself the State that the individual is being more and more called upon to give up the government of his activities.  As a matter of fact, it is in no way the largest good of all that is thus secured, but a great deal of organised blundering and evil with a certain amount of good which makes for real progress, because Nature moves forward always in the midst of all stumblings and secures her aims in the end more often in spite of man’s imperfect mentality than by its means.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 4, The Inadequacy of the State Idea, pp. 26-27


The Basis of the Idea of the State

The State, the organized societal framework, is a concept that is based on the idea that the collectivity of human beings can have its own separate existence which subsumes and supersedes the prerogatives of any individual member of that society.  It places the abstract notion of State ahead of the reality of the individual lives that make up the living body of that State.  This conception may have a certain truth underlying it, but needs to be clearly understood, since in the name of this abstraction, the individual is frequently controlled, coerced and forced into actions that run contrary to the perceived best interest and direction of development of the person.

Sri Aurobindo observes with regard to the idea of the State:  “Theoretically, it is the subordination of the individual to the good of all that is demanded; practically, it is his subordination to a collective egoism, political, military, economic, which seeks to satisfy certain collective aims and ambitions shaped and imposed on the great mass of the individuals by a smaller or larger number of ruing persons who are supposed in some way to represent the community.  It is immaterial whether these belong to a governing class or emerge as in modern States from the mass partly by force of character, but much more by force of circumstances, nor does it make any essential difference that their aims and ideals are imposed nowadays more by the hypnotism of verbal persuasion than by overt and actual force.  In either case, there is no guarantee that this ruling class or ruling body represents the best mind of the nation or its noblest aims or its highest instincts.”

In Plato’s Republic, the author speculates on the possibility of a development where the State was ruled by the best and highest minds of educated individuals.  Even in such a circumstance, one can recognise that this does not necessarily support the free growth and development of the highest and best talents of each individual member of society, because there remains a predisposition to manage the population through various frameworks, restrictions or limitations.  Yet today we can see that with the rise of mass media and big data computer modeling, along with micro-targeting, it is possible to manipulate, through the use of financial resources, the results of elections in purportedly free societies.  This allows a moneyed elite to dictate the direction, focus and values of the State and convince, or else enforce, those directions on everyone within the social structure.

Since the State is not therefore organised best on the best and highest aims, and does not give each individual the freedom to grow in their best and highest directions, it is quite easy to recognise that the State concept has severe limitations that must be understood and addressed in the larger attempt to achieve human unity that still supports the growth and development of the individual in the evolutionary progression of consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 4, The Inadequacy of the State Idea, pg. 26

The Supremacy of the State Over the Individual Dominates the Modern Age

Since the age of enlightenment and the Renaissance, there has been a growing sense of the role of the individual in the growth and development of consciousness as well as being the lynch-pin of actual progress in specific fields of endeavour.  Science, spirituality, philosophy, technological breakthroughs all occur through the efforts of specific individuals who are either inspired or, through dint of consistent effort, realize some new line of development and bring it to light.  This is not to imply that the individual, without the support of the society within which he exists, would necessarily make the same breakthroughs; but it does highlight the need for individual creativity and inspiration to take advantage of the fertile ground provided by the time-spirit and the society’s opportunities.

This development of the visible role of the individual has worked to systematically challenge the previously unquestioned power of the social order to dominate and control the lives of men.  The tension that has occurred as a result of the rise of the individual in relation to the previously absolute rights of the State, has led to the situation in the last century where there is a reaction and pushback to reassert the rights of the social order as against the freedom of the individual.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “In modern times the State idea has after a long interval fully reasserted itself and is dominating the thought and action of the world.  It supports itself on two motives; one appeals to the external interest of the race, the other to its highest moral tendencies.  It demands that individual egoism shall immolate itself to a collective interest; it claims that man shall live not for himself but for the whole, the group, the community.  It asserts that the hope of the good and the progress of humanity lies in the efficiency and organisation of the State.”

This reassertion took the form of the rise of communism, socialism, national socialism, and democratic socialism, and has been even disguised in the democratic forms and in capitalist societies through the rise of the corporation and the regimentation of daily life through social peer pressure, marketing, and the pressure to bring about order through lawmaking and enforcement efforts “for the good of society”.  The developing power of computers, “big data”, digital records, the internet and telecommunication technology has provided a tool for monitoring and controlling the actions of each individual to a degree not seen previously in our historical memory.

It is one of the processes of Nature to make an evolutionary step forward and then, the natural resistance of the status quo brings about a contrary reaction.  The two forces in this dialectic then undergo a period of struggle for supremacy, eventually attaining some new result, which either leads to the complete domination, for a time, of one or the other of the forces at work, or else, leads to a new harmony and balance resulting from a reordering of the relations of these forces to one another.

Sri Aurobindo implies that this tremendous power now being exercised by the idea of the State to dominate the individuals completely has nevertheless its own weaknesses:  “And yet the two ideas on which it bases itself are full of that fatal mixture of truth and falsehood which pursues all our human claims and assertions.  it is necessary to apply to them the solvent of a searching and unbiassed thought which refuses to be cheated by words, if we are not to describe helplessly another circle of illusion before we return to the deep and complex truth of Nature which should be our light and guide.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pp. 24-25

The False Premise Underlying Society’s Claim to Completely Subordinate the Individual

Regardless of the form of societal organisation, the tension that exists between the concept of the dominance of the society over individual and the inherent needs and rights of each individual remains in place.  A variety of forms, such as kings and dictators, a central politburo or governing elite, or even the control by a democratically elected governing class and their bureaucratic aides, all create the same essential issue for the individual when they arrogate to themselves absolute authority and control, and assert the superior claim of the State over the individual.  On the other side, the theoretical right of the individual to assert his conscientious objection to a specific act he is asked to carry out would seem to provide some relief for him; however, assertion of this theoretical right is blurred by the overpowering force of both social custom and the ruling structure, which can bring to bear pressures that, while potentially not forcing an individual into an undesired action, may otherwise ostracize, imprison, remove opportunity, or eliminate individuals who refuse to go along.  We can see examples of this type of pressure in all societies, regardless of democratic ideals or institutions that allegedly protect the rights of the person from encroachment by the constituted governing body.

Sri Aurobindo observes that regardless of the form of the State, the issue comes down to a basic truth that is nevertheless founded on an ultimate false premise:  “The truth is that each really is the self-expression of the State in its characteristic attempt to subordinate to itself the free will, the free action, the power, dignity and self-assertion of the individuals constituting it.  The falsehood lies in the underlying idea that the State is something greater than the individuals constituting it and can with impunity to itself and to the highest hope of humanity arrogate this oppressive supremacy.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pp. 23-24

Three Types of Relationship Between Societal Organisation and the Individual

Sri Aurobindo describes three different potential modes or types of relationship between the individual and the societal grouping.  These are essentially a continuum from total subordination of the individual to the needs and control of the society; a partial control that provides some freedom to the individual within the framework of the greater needs of the state; and a state that conceives of itself as existing for the benefit of the optimum life and growth of the individual.  Experiments have taken place through time with varying attempts to balance the needs of the state with the desires of the individual; and as the individual became more aware of his individuality, we see a greater polarization occurring between proponents of one view or the other.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…history and sociology tell us only…of man as an individual in the more or less organised group.  And in the group there are always two types.  One asserts the State idea at the expense of the individual,– ancient Sparta, modern Germany (editors note: he was referring to Germany in the early 20th century here); another asserts the supremacy of the State, but seeks at the same time to give as much freedom, power and dignity as is consistent with its control to the individuals who constitute it,– ancient Athens, modern France.  But to these two has been added a third type in which the State abdicates as much as possible to the individual, boldly asserts that it exists for his growth and to assure his freedom, dignity, successful manhood, experiments with a courageous faith whether after all it is not the utmost possible liberty, dignity and manhood of the individual which will best assure the well-being, strength and expansion of the State.”

Sri Aurobindo cites England as the example of this third type, “England rendered free, prosperous, energetic, invincible by nothing else but the strength of this idea within her, blessed by the Gods with unexampled expansion, empire and good fortune because she has not feared at any time to obey this great tendency and take the risks of this great endeavour and even often to employ it beyond the limits of her own insular egoism.”   He points out that the limitations of the human ego and social development did not permit the full and free expression of this last formation.   He foresaw the eventual breakdown of this model in the need to keep up with the attainments of the countries that stressed efficiency and discipline, such as the Germany of the early 20th Century, and in retrospect we can see that what he envisioned came to pass as England had to organize itself on more traditional lines focusing on the needs of the State to take on the threat of the Third Reich of Hitler’s Germany.

Sri Aurobindo asks whether another solution would have been possible to continue and enhance the success of this third model:  “One may well ask oneself whether it was really necessary, whether, by a more courageous faith enlightened by a more flexible and vigilant intelligence, all the desirable results might not have been attained by a new and freer method that would yet keep intact the dharma of the race.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pp. 22-23

Exploring Traditional Views About the Interaction Between Individual and Society

The view promulgated by history and social science about the interaction between the social order and the individual is not entirely undisputed.  There are long traditions from around the world that speak of a former “golden age” of humanity where the individual lived in freedom without the binding strictures of social customs or laws, and yet interacted with others in a harmonious and balanced manner, based on some internal guidance.  The historians would make it seem that the only possible such prior existence, on the contrary, would be one that treats the individual as a type of “lone wolf”, surviving on his own and only after time and experiencing, coming to the idea of a social grouping as a survival mechanism.  Both of these views tend to contradict the historical record we can point to, and yet, somehow they seem to be anchored in some form of “racial memory”.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the various options regarding this “race memory”:  “But the tradition is rather that of a golden age in which he was freely social without society.  Not bound by laws or institutions but living by natural instinct or free knowledge, he held the right law of his living in himself and needed neither to prey on his fellows nor to be restrained by the iron yoke of the collectivity.  We may say, if we will, that here poetic or idealistic imagination played upon a deep-seated race-memory; early civilised man read his growing ideal of a free, unorganised, happy association into his race-memory of an unorganised, savage and anti-social existence.”

There is however another option which Sri Aurobindo explores: “But it is also possible that our progress has not been a development in a straight line, but in cycles, and that in those cycles there have been periods of at least partial realisation in which men did become able to live according to the high dream of philosophic Anarchism, associated by the inner law of love and light and right being, right thinking, right action and not coerced to unity by kings and parliaments, laws and policings and punishments with all that tyrant unease, petty or great oppression and repression and ugly train of selfishness and corruption which attend the forced government of man by man.”  The legends of annihilation of societies and the new development of mankind thereafter, such as we find in the world-wide legends of world-inundating floods, or in the story of the ancient civilisation of Atlantis, or in the discussions of the various ages found in the Indian Puranas, would all tend towards some such cause.

Sri Aurobindo continues with another option:  “It is even possible that our original state was an instinctive animal spontaneity of free and fluid association and that our final ideal state will be an enlightened, intuitive spontaneity of free and fluid association.  Our destiny may be the conversion of an original animal association into a community of the gods.  Our progress may be a devious round leading from the easy and spontaneous uniformity and harmony which reflects Nature to the self-possessed unity which reflects the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pp. 21-22

Evolutionary Development of the Concept of Individual Fulfillment

From what we can determine from historical record, the rise of the individual separate from the group is a relatively recent progression, which has come about through the increasing impact of the evolution of the higher mentality into the material life.  A study of civilisations and their development, as well as societal organization, also supports this view.  The increase of urbanization, combined with the freeing up of a certain amount of leisure time, and the development of broad-based educational institutions have all contributed to the development of the individual as a self-aware, self-standing individual.  The development of art, music, literature, philosophy contributed to the view that the individual can and should have his own personal fulfillment.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Originally, we may suppose, man was altogether gregarious, association his first necessity for survival; since survival is the first necessity of all being, the individual could be nothing but an instrument for the strength and safety of the group, and if we add to strength and safety growth, efficiency, self-assertion as well as self-preservation, this is still the dominant idea of all collectivism.  This turn is a necessity born of circumstance and environment.  Looking more into fundamental things we perceive that in Matter uniformity is the sign of the group; free variation and individual development progress with the growth of Life and Mind.  If we then suppose man to be an evolution of mental being in Matter and out of Matter, we must assume that he begins with uniformity and subservience of the individual and proceeds towards variety and freedom of the individual.  The necessity of circumstance and environment and the inevitable law of his fundamental principles of being would then point to the same conclusion, the same process of his historic and prehistoric evolution.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 3, The Group and the Individual, pg. 21