Dedicated to Dharma Kumar, this book by Beteille is a collection of 12 papers published elsewhere between 1978 and 1999. These are reflective pieces on Indian society’s uneven experiences in the course of transition from a traditional to a modernizing one. Antinomies are not the same as binary opposites, though they are a sort of contradiction in norms and values (rather than the socioeconomic features of the roles and relationships) deployed by the society as it regulates itself. They are both the surface and the undercurrents prevailing in the thoughts and behaviour of individuals and societies, an idea one encounters more in religious and philosophical literature than in the sociological one. But these are present in society all the time. My doctoral examiner’s comment that my thesis showed a great deal of tension (rather than an absence of it) as respondents encountered the family planning programme, comes to mind as one reads Antinomies. Beteille prefers Durkheim’s concept of ‘collective representations’ to the all-encompassing ‘collective conscience’ in dealing with antinomies.
The disjunctions between freedom and equality, norms and values, and law and custom observed in institutional conduct are Beteille’s focus of attention. He is intrigued by the analytical separation between the proverbial tussling fronts of cherished values and corrupting powers between people, communities and nations as they occupy differential positions of power and interest. What makes the running theme fascinating is the preoccupation of ideology that seeks to connect the universe of values with the realm of power.
The first three essays deal with contradictions of ideology in Marxism, pluralism and secularism. Intellectuals figure with the ideology of secularism in the second section of the book that carries one into the university as a centre of learning and an institution of the civil society. The norms and values of the civil society and the communities of birth in India in particular, and efforts at governance and empowerment constitute the last section of the book. One section overflows into another. Thus these are not separated into sections by the author.
The shift in the shade of ideology as perceived and defined today as against the height of the Cold War is an interesting lead into antinomies. In neither of the cases is the use of ideology as an engine for change or an instrument for status quo a mystification. With reference to works by Engels and Bankim Chandra, the difference as well as overlap of ideology with realpolitik and religion is brought out to stress that it falls in the realm of non-material social facts. He argues that ideologies nevertheless are concerned with politics, with the struggles for power unlike science and religion. The views of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Bukharin, Stalin, Plekhanov, Sartre, Mearleau-Ponty, Lukacs and Gramsci are taken through Marxist pluralism and its orthodoxy. Gramsci’s distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals is bounced with actual organizational and ethnic affiliations in general and the freedom or its absence for an intellectual. With the example of the Indian intellectual’s situatedness, as a stratum rather than a class, antinomies between freedom of ideas and pursuit of knowledge are discussed. Unlike Manheim’s view of free modern intellectuals, Beteille finds support in Shils in the evidence of increasing organizational incorporation of intellectuals all over the world. More so in India, the claims to academic excellence have to accommodate the claims of social justice. Academic usefulness to industry as against the value of ideas in itself differs markedly from the university in the middle ages. This posed tensions in Marx and Gramsci too. The welding of Gramsci’s traditional with organic intellectuals remains an antinomy. Secularism in India takes Beteille to compare and contrast the views of Srinivas (non-religious) and Madan (anti-religious). While agreeing with Srinivas that secularism is separation of religion from several societal and institutional spheres rather than its exclusion from society, he disagrees with Madan that it is disruptive of the wholeness of the traditional Indian world. The folly of militant secularism in Stalin’s and Mao Tse-tung’s times is a case in point.
The autonomy of the university from religious doctrine, growth of capitalism and the Weberian bureaucratic management of organizations with impersonal rules are forces of secularization. The tussle both in principle and practice between academic autonomy and bureaucratic labyrinth and authority at levels within and outside the universities reveal a loss of gloss. Taking his own experience in Delhi University he reflects upon the willingness or not to pay a price for academic autonomy. He personally settles for the ‘research university’ taken after Wilhelm Von Humboldt in Germany which now is more visible in the best north American universities like Harvard, Princeton, Chicago and Stanford. His advice to the state is to fund ‘research universities’ that stand for the world of ideas and as institutions for the future rather than those which are more political and less academic.
Following the Hegelian idea of the moment between the family and the state and in tracing civil society from Hegel through Marx and Gramsci, back to Ferguson, Montesquieu and de Tocqueville Beteille brings people and their customs up to the stage. The ambivalent relation between civil society and the state is brought up while the individual in democracy is contrasted with the mediating institutions of the family, caste, etc. particularly in the Indian context. This allows him to trace the admirable existence of civil society in the western world where democracy has had strong roots for long. The antinomy to him is between constitutional and populist democracy.
The imbrication of the rich Indian heritage of diversity and plurality with hierarchical collective identities prevailing over individual ones bothers Beteille. So does the proliferation of rules and their disregard in practice. The obduracy of claims of collectivities as against the rights of individuals survives through positive discrimination policies and the ensuing politics. The other constitutional antinomy is the right to propagate religion in a secular nation. Drawing heavily on Weber, he raises the difficult course of steering uneasily between entangled patronage networks and dehumanizing bureaucracy. He takes education and the Indian administrative service (IAS) and supports Bourdieu’s reproduction thesis. What then happens to the thin thread by which democracy hangs remains a governance question.
The final piece on empowerment is shown as a contextual than a theoretical concept, thus its limitations. Having had difficulty in bringing growth with equity and bringing egalitarian society from hierarchy even in England, equality through caste politics has grim prospects for the author. Connecting the world of values with the realm of power through application of ideas and examples from Indian and other societies makes the book interesting. Beteille’s eurocentric bias is clear throughout the book. For instance, Beteille overlooks Alexis de Tocqueville’s reflection on the inherent contradiction shown in the New England character. Or the ‘power elite’ thesis of C. W. Mills and the ethnographic critique of ‘culture of poverty’ thesis by Carol B. Stack that came out after over a century and a quarter of Tocqueville’s study. However, it needs to be borne in mind that the author is obviously not dealing with antinomies of the modern society.
Tulsi Patel is Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Delhi school of Economics, University of Delhi.